Press urges Goldsmith to end contempt confusion

Lord Goldsmith’s contentious comments about a major trial were quickly retracted

 

newspaper industry has called for action to clear up the confusion surrounding the reporting of high-profile crimes – after the Attorney General himself appeared to breach a court order concerning a major trial.

Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell this week wrote to Lord Goldsmith calling for a meeting involving himself, the Newspaper Society, the Press Complaints Commission and a senior judge.

The Attorney General has criticised the press for coverage which he said could prejudice major trials.

But Satchwell and others have asked how the press can keep within the law when the Attorney General himself apparently had difficulty doing so.

Goldsmith made his contentious comments while speaking at the Press Gazette and Newspaper Society Law for Journalists Conference in London on Friday. They were retracted by an aide an hour after he had finished speaking and have not been reported because of the risk of committing contempt of court.

His comments came the day after Home Secretary David Blunkett was accused of committing contempt of court by saying that arrested Gloucester terrorist suspect Sajid Badat “posed a real threat to life and liberty in our country”.

Satchwell said: “The fact that Press Gazette and the Newspaper Society got a great scoop of their own shows just how difficult an area this is. Even the Attorney General had some difficulty in knowing where the boundaries lie. That’s the point.

“Editors in all parts of the media are always having to have a dialogue with their lawyers about just how far they can go. No one wants to inhibit fair trials and no one wants to risk a trial being stopped with all the implications that has.”

The SoE, the NS and the PCC have expressed reservations about the Attorney General’s comments on Friday – particularly his suggestion that the 1981 Contempt of Court Act should not be treated as the “be all and end all” and reporters should look beyond the strict liability rule that risk of contempt only starts once an arrest has been made.

Satchwell said: “This lottery needs to be cleared up. It would make sense to find out if there is a serious problem and where it is. We need serious academic research commissioned by the Attorney General to see how decisions are reached and how much juries are affected by media coverage.”

Speaking at Friday’s conference, the Attorney General said he was investigating 70 cases that may have been subject to prejudicial reporting which he said was a “disturbingly high number”.

Newspaper reporting of the Soham murder investigation and current trial is expected to be subject to intense scrutiny when the case concludes.

PCC chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, also speaking at the conference, said about contempt of court: “What everybody in the industry has to avoid is a grey area.”

 

By Dominic Ponsford

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