Spectator fined for prejudicial Lawrence article

The Spectator magazine was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay £2,000 to the parents of black teenager Stephen Lawrence today after admitting an article it published jeopardised the trial of two men later convicted of his murder.

It admitted a charge relating to an article published on November 17 last year in which columnist Rod Liddle described defendants Gary Dobson and David Norris as "white trash" while the trial was taking place at the Old Bailey.

It also contained prejudicial information about their previous convictions and behaviour which, although previously in the public domain, was subject to reporting restrictions during the trial.

Trial judge Mr Justice Treacy warned jurors not to read the article and referred it to the Attorney General for breaching three specific sections of a contempt order placed on the case.

Dobson and Norris were convicted of the 1993 murder in January and jailed for life.

At Westminster Magistrates' Court today the magazine's publisher Spectator 1828 Ltd admitted a charge of breaching a court order made under Section 83 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

Its solicitor Brian Spiro apologised unreservedly to the Lawrence family and everyone involved with the case for what he said had been a "sad sequence of events" that led to the article being published.

District Judge Howard Riddle accepted that the Spectator had not intended to publish prejudicial material but said he had to compensate the Lawrence family for the "additional distress" they had been put through by fearing the trial could collapse.

Awarding £1,000 compensation each to Neville and Doreen Lawrence he said the article had the "potential to undermine justice".

"Apart from the fact that the article breached a court order the reality is that as a result of publication there was at least a brief period during a sensitive part of the trial in which the whole trial process itself was in jeopardy," he said.

"I don't need any imagination whatsoever to see what distress this might have caused, not least to the Lawrence family and friends.

"Fortunately it is clear that the jury did not read the article and the trial was able to come to a fair conclusion.

"But for Mr and Mrs Lawrence and members of their family the prospect of the trial collapsing must have been terrifying."

The article by Liddle, a former editor of BBC Radio 4's Today programme, was published in the November 19 edition of the magazine, which went on sale two days earlier.

In it, the court heard, he started by warning of the possibility of committing contempt of court by discussing the guilt or innocence of Dobson and Norris, but went on to write: "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, were absolutely guilty, bang to rights."

He wished Mr Justice Treacy "good luck" in finding a jury who started the trial with a "clean slate".

He then went on to report on connections between the five and organised crime, and previous convictions for Norris and one other.

He finished by writing: "Should we care about these undoubtedly violent, often criminal, certainly unpleasant white trash?

"That they were (and probably still are) racists is quite beyond dispute."

Prosecutor Alison Morgan said the article breached an order made at the Court of Appeal in September 2010 and widely circulated to news organisations, that details of previous convictions and associations was barred until the end of the trial.

This was done to allow Norris a fair trial and Dobson a fair retrial, following the collapse of the first murder trial.

She said the article could have had "devastating consequences" and the trial briefly "hung in the balance", coming as Stephen's friend Duwayne Brooks gave witness evidence.

"The article came out of the blue," she said.

"It was totally different to all the other coverage (in the press) at the time.

"To say the atmosphere in court was highly charged would be an understatement, given Stephen's best friend was giving evidence about what happened in 1993."

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