Record wants joint effort to fight online contempt ruling

Record: unhappy with Beggs ruling

The Daily Record has asked other Scottish newspapers to join it in challenging a court ruling that could result in publishers and editors being jailed for contempt over archive material available on the internet.

The Record has asked the Crown to challenge the ruling, made during last year’s trial of murderer William Beggs, and if that fails it is asking for support from all the Scottish press.

The ruling means that every time criminal proceedings against an individual become active and archive material on a paper’s website containing their background and previous convictions is accessed, it lays publishers open to contempt charges. Their only recourse at the moment is to wipe the material from the database.

Des Hudson, managing director of The Herald, Sunday Herald and Evening Times, is keen for his group to be part of the legal challenge. As president of the Scottish Daily Newspapers Society, he has asked secretary Jim Raeburn to to canvass members’ opinion.

"We are very, very unhappy about the Beggs decision," said Hudson. "We need to tackle this issue on behalf of the Scottish media. This decision creates serious anomalies – someone can go along to the Glasgow City library and look at a copy of the Herald from five years ago in which we record a conviction of Mr Beggs. But if they access that same article via our website, we could potentially be in contempt of court."

Daily Record managing editor Malcolm Speed said: "This is a massively important issue for journalists everywhere. It is so far-reaching it could mean an editor is in court for something that he knows nothing about, that a story on the archive has become active in terms of the Contempt of Court Act."

Before last year’s trial, every Scottish paper had run stories on their websites connecting Beggs with the murder of a man whose torso was found in Loch Lomond and head on the beach at Troon.

During the Beggs trial, it was claimed that material available on websites constituted a contempt of court because they gave details of the defendant’s background and one listed a previous conviction. A High Court judge accepted that online archive material constituted publication.

Peter Watson, senior partner of Levy and MacRae, which acts for the Record and The Herald, has asked Crown Agent Andrew Normand for a review of the ruling, which he believes places publishers in an invidious position. They have no control over when their sites are accessed and thus a potential contempt created.

Watson said the ruling did not deal with issues of jurisdiction. For example, was there a prima-facie case of contempt if a site based in Scotland was accessed in the US? Nor had issues of human rights, freedom of expression or the public’s right of access to information been considered, he said

By Jean Morgan

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