If Home Secretary David Blunkett and Attorney General Lord Goldsmith had deliberately conspired to illustrate the difficulties faced by journalists reporting criminal investigations and trials, they could not have made a better fist of it.
Here’s how we’ll do it, they might have plotted last week.
Blunkett: “On Thursday I’ll make some outspoken comments concerning a suspect who’s just been arrested for alleged terrorist activities. That’ll stir things up. Everyone will wonder whether you’ll have to charge me with contempt of court, even though we’re close government colleagues.”
Lord Goldsmith: “Excellent wheeze, David, but I’ll go one better. On Friday I’ll address Press Gazette’s Law for Journalists Conference. I’ll make some remarks about a controversial ongoing trial, contravening orders made by the trial judge. Then, an hour after I’ve left, I’ll send back one of my aides to tell them not to report what I said or to retract their copy if they’ve already filed. It’ll be great.
They’ll wonder if I should throw myself into prison or give myself a hefty fine.”
High farce in high circles. But after Dave and Pete’s unintentional comedy routine, reporters and their editors are still left wondering where they stand on contempt when it comes to trials.
The bottom line, of course, is how much jurors are influenced by what they have read and heard about a case, both before they are sworn in and during the proceedings. If we knew more about that, surely it would help us formulate a sensible framework governing how we report such things.
So here’s a cunning ruse: let’s ask them.
If only it were so simple. It is an offence for jurors to discuss their deliberations, even after the trial has finished. So as the law stands, there’s no chance of finding out how much, if any, of the opinions they take into the jury room are influenced by newspapers, television reports – or the internet.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that they take their oaths to disregard everything beyond what they hear in the courtroom very seriously indeed. And limited jury research carried out in Australia shows that the legal arguments blot out almost everything else in the jurors’ minds.
Without comprehensive research – carried out in strictest confidence by academics – being commissioned out over here, the current confusion will never be satisfactorily resolved.
One of the Attorney General’s less contentious remarks last week was that he welcomed a dialogue between his department and the media.
So how about putting jury research high on the agenda?