The Spectator magazine is facing criminal prosecution over an article by columnist Rod Liddle published during the trial of two men for the murder trial of Stephen Lawrence last November.
The title is being prosecuted under Section 83 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, for breaching reporting restrictions imposed during the case. Under the law the proprietors of the magazine, the Barclay brothers, the publisher or editor Fraser Nelson could face being charged – but not the author of the piece, Rod Liddle. Press Gazette understands that the summons has been sent to managing director Ben Greenish.
CPS London Chief Crown Prosecutor Alison Saunders said: ‘On 24 November 2011 the Attorney General referred an article published in The Spectator magazine to the Crown Prosecution Service for consideration of whether a reporting restrictions Order in place at the time had been breached.
‘The article in question was dated 19 November 2011 and came during the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris who were accused, and subsequently convicted, of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The judge, Mr Justice Treacy referred the article to the Attorney General for consideration under his contempt powers.
‘Due to the intense media interest in this case an Order under Section 82 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 prohibiting publication of certain assertions about the defendants was in place. This order was imposed by the Court of Appeal on 18 May 2011 and was continued at the commencement of the trial on 14 November 2011.
‘Having applied the full code test in the Code for Crown Prosecutors I have taken the decision that there is a realistic prospect of conviction. The Attorney General has determined that it is in the public interest to proceed and he has given his consent to this prosecution.
‘Where a charge is brought under Section 83 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 and the publication is a newspaper or periodical, the proprietor, editor or publisher may be liable for the offence, and not the author.
‘Accordingly a summons against the publisher of the magazine, The Spectator (1828) Ltd has been obtained from City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court, and the first hearing will be on 7 June 2012.”
The maximum penalty for this offence is a £5,000 fine.
The Rod Liddle comment article was published on 7 November, three days after the trial of Dobson and Norris began.
Trial judge Justice Treacy interrupted proceedings in order to ask jurors whether or not they had read it. When they said they had not, he ordered them to avoid it and referred the matter to Attorney General Dominic Grieve who passed it on to the CPS.
Once a trial is in progress journalists are acutely aware of the dangers of contempt of court and normally limit themselves to reports of what has been heard by the jury in open court.
But in his Spectator piece, Liddle referred to the accused as ‘violent, often criminal, certainly unpleasant white trash”.
He stated that they were were racists and also included details not known to the jurors of Norris’s previous convictions and criminal links.
The piece opened: ‘I wonder what would happen if I wrote an article for this magazine saying that Gary Dobson and David Norris had nothing to do with the stabbing to death of the black youngster Stephen Lawrence 18 years ago? And that they are entirely innocent? The two are in court at this moment charged with the murder of Lawrence, and therefore I would be in contempt of courtâ€¦
‘Courts rightly take such matters very seriously, but it would be a singularly perverse judge who took action against me: for the last 18 years the public has been assured that all five of the men originally named as suspects, including Dobson and Norris, are absolutely guilty, bang to rights. And reminded of the fact every so often.”
Liddle went on to say: ‘Will Dobson and Norris – the son of a drug dealer himself, as it happens; at least two of the five men and probably three have familial connects to fairly big-time sarf lunnun thick-as-mince gangsters – get a fair hearing, do you suppose?
‘Nope, not a chance. About eight years ago Neil Acourt and David Norris were charged with throwing an empty drink carton in the direction of a policeman. They were sentenced to 18 months each in prison – no other charges, that’s all it was. I think they received that sentence on account of not being banged up for the murder of Stephen Lawrence, not for throwing a drink carton at a copperâ€¦
‘Should we care about these undoubtedly violent, often criminal, certainly unpleaseant white trash? That they were (and probably still are) racists is quite beyond dispute. Maybe, these days, that’s enough to convince the rest of us that where legal rights are concerned, they simply do not have any.”