Two national newspapers were today found guilty of contempt of court over the use of internet photographs.
In what are believed to be the first cases of their kind, the High Court in London ruled the contempt occurred when the Daily Mail and The Sun websites carried pictures on their websites of a murder trial defendant “posing with a gun”.
The publishers were taken to court by Attorney General Dominic Grieve.
The cases arose out of the Sheffield Crown Court trial in 2009 of Ryan Ward, who was eventually convicted of murdering car mechanic Craig Wass by hitting him on the head with half a brick.
Judge Michael Murphy QC, who presided at the trial, refused to discharge the jury after saying he was “quite satisfied” no members of the jury had been influenced by the internet.
Nevertheless, it was argued on the Attorney General’s behalf that publication of the pictures had created “a substantial risk” that the trial could have been “seriously impeded or prejudiced” by jurors seeing them.
Angus McCullough QC said both newspapers had breached the strict liability rule under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, which makes it clear that publishing an article or picture may be contempt, even though there is no actual “intent” to interfere with the course of justice.
McCullough said there was no allegation by the prosecution that Ward had ever used a firearm, or possessed one.
The newspapers’ lawyers argued there was no strict liability breach, and that any risk of prejudice was “insubstantial”, particularly as the trial judge had repeatedly warned jurors not to consult the internet.
Use of the picture was “a mistake” which was quickly corrected.
But today Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Owen said that – “notwithstanding that publication of the image of the accused with a pistol was a mistake” – there was a breach of the contempt laws under the strict liability rule.
“We conclude that the nature of the photograph created a substantial risk of prejudicing any juror who saw that photograph against the defendant Ward.”
Lord Justice Moses, giving judgment on behalf of the court, said: “The criminal courts have been troubled by the dangers to the integrity and fairness of a criminal trial, where juries can obtain such easy access to the internet and to other forms of instant communication.
“Once information is published on the internet, it is difficult if not impossible completely to remove it.
“The courts, while trusting a jury to obey a prohibition on consulting the internet, have been concerned to meet the problem.
“This case demonstrates the need to recognise that instant news requires instant and effective protection for the integrity of a criminal trial.”
The judges will consider what penalties and costs orders to impose on Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Daily Mail, and News Group Newspapers, publishers of The Sun, at a future date.