The Attorney General’s tough stance on contempt of court breaches has changed the culture of The Sun’s newsroom and its coverage of crime stories, the Leveson Inquiry has heard.
Publishing director Stephen Waring, who was duty editor during The Sun’s controversial coverage of Chris Jefferies, said the story was a ‘watershed’moment for the British press.
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The paper was one of eight newspapers that paid substantial libel damages to Jefferies in July 2011, and along with its tabloid rival the Daily Mirror was also fined for contempt of court for three articles published on 31 December and 1 January.
Waring told the inquiry that when the stories were run ‘there was a far more liberal interpretation of what we could get in away with in print”, citing the coverage of ‘Night Stalker’Delroy Grant and the arrest of the 21 July bombers.
Under the present Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, the nationals’ coverage ofthose stories would have resulted in contempt proceedings, according to Waring.
‘Since the new Attorney General took his post he’s made it clear that he wants a strict application of contempt,’he said.
‘He made it clear that he wanted to tighten up that law,’he added. ‘Since he was appointed he’s brought more contempt of court cases than were brought in the previous 10 years, I believe.
‘He has certainly changed our attitudes to how we report arrests and we have changed the culture of the paper on the back of the Jefferies case.
‘I know it’s been described as a watershed moment but it genuinely is for our newsroom.’
A recent example of this new attitude was The Sun’s coverage of the trial of Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield, he said.
The Attorney General launched contempt proceedings against the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail in June 2011 after an ‘avalanche’of publicity about Levi Bellfield led to the collapse of a trial involving an attempted kidnap allegation against him.
The papers published pre-prepared background material following the conviction of Bellfield but the jury was still considering a second charge of trying to abduct another girl.
Waring said The Sun had an ‘enormous amount’of material on Bellfield which ultimately it decided not to publish
‘There was a long conversation about whether we should use this material and Mr Jefferies’ name obviously came up, and the procedures and mistakes we’d made over Jefferies.
‘We we talked about it in great detail and decided not to put any of it in the paper.”
He said similar decisions were taken with the paper’s coverage of the deaths at Stepping Hill Hospital.
‘It’s something that’s affected us and changed our attitude,’added Waring.
‘That change of attitude would have come in if there’d been no Leveson Inquiry, no Bribery Act, no investigation into media standards
‘It came about because the Attorney General decided that he was going to change the way he interpreted contempt and he was going to apply it and that’s changed our attitude.’
He ended his evidence by telling Lord Justice Leveson: ‘Please don’t judge my colleagues by the errors I made in this edition because they are a bunch of very committed hard working individuals the finest journalists on Fleet Street, and The sun is a very vibrant paper and a compassionate paper.
‘We produce a hundred thousand items a year, we got this one badly wrong and I admit that. But these mistakes do happen.’