The Sun has been fined £3,350 for breaching reporting restrictions with its coverage of a court hearing involving a man accused of causing a huge explosion which killed a two-year-old boy.
A district judge questioned whether the maximum fine available to him was high enough after News Group Newspapers (NGN), publisher of The Sun, admitted breaching restrictions in a report on Andrew Partington's appearance at Oldham Magistrates' Court last year to face a charge of manslaughter and other offences.
Partington, 28, was later jailed for 10 years for causing the explosion in Oldham in June last year which obliterated his house and neighbouring properties and killed toddler Jamie Heaton.
Manchester Magistrates' Court heard on Friday that The Sun published a report of Partington's first appearance before magistrates which included many details of the evidence against him.
The court heard that these included the content of text messages Partington sent which "formed the crux of the prosecution case".
These details were outlined in court as the defendant applied for bail, but strict reporting restrictions prohibit the publication of all but basic details of cases at that stage of a prosecution in order to stop potential jurors being prejudiced by news coverage.
District Judge Jonathan Taaffe said The Sun's report on September 11 last year "clearly went beyond what was permitted".
He went on: "I recognise that the press provide and perform a valuable function in our society.
"The facts surrounding the explosion in Oldham were both newsworthy and subject of intense public interest."
But he added: "It's in circumstances such as these that it's absolutely necessary for the press to behave responsibility and comply with the law."
A failure to do this could result in guilty people walking free or "the innocent having their reputations trashed".
Turning to the report in The Sun, District Judge Taaffe said: "This was at best shoddy journalism and at worst it's an example of sensational reporting in a bid to generate short-term headlines and, no doubt, financial gain."
He fined £3,350 and ordered the paper to pay costs of £500 and a victim surcharge of £120.
He said the maximum fine was £5,000 – usually for a defendant who was found guilty after a trial.
He said: "Many will feel this (the potential maximum fine) doesn't reflect the serious nature of the behaviour of The Sun."
Jonathan Caplan QC, defending News Group Newspapers, had told the court that the newspaper fully admitted its error and had apologised to the court at the time through the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
An online version of the story was withdrawn when the CPS pointed out the error.
Caplan also pointed out that Partington had indicated at the magistrates' court that he was going to plead guilty to the offences and had made a number of admissions to the police.
But Caplan accepted that this was no guarantee there would not be a trial before a jury and was "not in any way a justification".
The company pleaded guilty to one count of "reporting matters in contravention of a reporting restriction" contrary to Section 52A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.
It had been charged with two counts – one relating the newspaper and another in relation to its website – but the one relating to online publication was withdrawn at Friday's hearing.
The court heard that The Sun had never breached this Act before, nor is there any record of it breaching the more commonly prosecuted restrictions detailed in section 8 of the Magistrates' Court Act 1980.
Caplan said training had been arranged for in-house lawyers in the wake of the mistake.
"I repeat the apology," he said. "My client takes this seriously. It was an error and they have pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity."
He added: "This article should not have been published."
Caplan asked for 28 days to pay the fine but the District Judge ordered it to be paid within a week.
A Sun spokesperson said: "The Sun's article was published in light of Mr Partington's lawyers saying in open court that he had admitted everything to the police and that there would be no trial. Mr Partington subsequently pleaded guilty to manslaughter and criminal damage.
"Last week in court at the earliest opportunity The Sun apologised and accepted that its report included some elements in breach of the relevant reporting restrictions".
The reporting restrictions detailed in Section 52A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which were inserted by Schedule 3 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, replace those relating to committal hearings in section 8 of the Magistrates' Courts Act 1980.
The change has come with the abolition of committal hearings, which are being replaced with a new system under which magistrates' courts simply "send" or "transfer" indictable and either-way offences to Crown Courts.
The restrictions under section 52A apply in all cases in which cases are sent or transferred, while those in section 8 of the 1980 Act still apply in those few areas where committal hearings have not yet been phased out.
The change, however, makes little difference to the way in which such hearings are reported, because the new restrictions almost exactly mirror the earlier ones.
There are, however, two slight differences -the new restrictions under section 52A do not allow for the publication of the names and addresses of witnesses, which are unlikely to be given in court in any case, although this was permitted under section 8 of the 1980 Act.
But section 52A does allow, in cases which have been designated as serious or complex fraud, the publication of "Relevant business information", which is defined as being:
- any address used by the accused for carrying on a business on his own account;
- the name of any business which he was carrying on on his own account at any relevant time; the name of any firm in which he was a partner at any relevant time or by which he was engaged at any such time;
- the address of any such firm;
- the name of any company of which he was a director at any relevant time or by which he was otherwise engaged at any such time;
- the address of the registered or principal office of any such company;
- any working address of the accused in his capacity as a person engaged by any such company.