PA saves Clarke from court contempt blunder

By Jon Slattery

The Press Association saved home secretary Charles Clarke from committing a possible contempt of court in a press statement commenting on the Mary-Ann Leneghan torture and murder case.

The statement was issued on Friday afternoon and PA journalists realised that as not all the verdicts in the case had been delivered, there was a risk the trial could have been discontinued.

The home secretary’s statement disclosed that the defendants were "offenders" and said: "It is always disturbing when a serious crime is committed by offenders under supervision in the community."

In fact, one of the six defendants, Llewellyn Adams, on whom verdicts had already been returned, had no previous convictions.

Home Office officials emailed the statement to PA home affairs correspondent David Barratt, but he and PA newsdesk staff became alarmed and asked the Home Office if it really intended to issue the statement at a time when verdicts were still awaited in the case of one of the six defendants.

The Press Association’s own in-house media law specialist, Mike Dodd, advised against sending the statement to subscribers on the grounds that it posed a serious risk of contempt.

He told Press Gazette: "The trouble with politicians is that they are prepared to be very critical of the press for going too far while they themselves come close to doing the same thing.

There is an irony that the home secretary is himself in charge of law and order."

"It baffles me how they could put out this press statement before the last of the verdicts."

A Home Office spokesman said: "Home Office ministerial statements relating to criminal convictions at trials are routinely checked by Home Office legal advisers.

"However, on this occasion, due to an oversight, a copy of the proposed statement to be issued only after the verdicts on all the counts at the trial, was given to the Press Association in error, and before the jury had returned all the verdicts.

"The Press Association was the only media organisation that the statement was sent to."

PA supplies all the leading broadcasters and websites as well as the press. The home secretary’s statement could have been transmitted to a large number of news outlets in seconds if the possible contempt had not been spotted by PA journalists.

In November 2004, the then home secretary, David Blunkett, was criticised after saying that forthcoming court cases would expose the full threat to Britain posed by international terrorists.

In 2003, after a suspected terrorist was detained in Gloucester, Blunkett made a remark linking the man to al Qaeda.

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