The Attorney General has accused two national newspapers of contempt of court for publishing photos showing a murder trial defendant “posing with a gun” on their websites.
In what is believed to be the first case of its kind, Dominic Grieve has asked the High Court to punish the publishers of the Daily Mail and The Sun for displaying pictures on their websites.
The cases arise out of the Sheffield Crown Court trial in 2009 of Ryan Ward, who was eventually convicted of murdering car mechanic Craig Wass by hitting him over the head with a brick.
Judge Michael Murphy QC, who presided at the trial, refused to discharge the jury after saying he was “quite satisfied” that no jurors had been influenced by the net.
But yesterday Andrew McCullough QC, for the Attorney General, told Lord Justice Moses and Justice Owen that publication of the pictures nevertheless created a substantial risk that the trial could have been “seriously impeded or prejudiced” by jurors seeing them.
Both newspapers breached strict liability rule under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which makes it clear that publishing an article or picture may be contempt, even though there is no actual “intent” to interfere with the course of justice, he said.
Lawyers for the newspapers argued there was no breach of the strict rule, and the risk of prejudice was “insubstantial”, particularly as the trial judge had repeatedly warned jurors not to consult the internet.
The judges reserved judgment at the end of a day-long hearing.
They will give their decision in the near future and are expected to use yesterday’s proceedings to lay down guidelines on how the law of contempt should be applied in cases involving the internet.
McCullough told the hearing publication on both newspaper websites was contemporaneous with the Ward trial.
Information on the internet was “highly viral” and hard to contain once it was published – it was “rapidly spread” and very easily transmitted and directed to those thought to have a potential interest in it.
“These were publications made on the websites of two national newspapers, each of which have literally millions of visitors every day,” McCullough said.
He emphasised the potential prejudicial affect on any juror of a picture of a defendant in criminal proceedings posing with “what appeared to be a gun”, adding that this was particularly true in proceedings involving “a defendant on a murder charge who is running a defence of self defence, as well as having to face lesser charges of assault and affray”.
There was no allegation by the prosecution that Ward had ever used a firearm, or possessed one, McCullough added.
Jonathan Caplan QC, for Daily Mail publisher Associated Newspapers, said the uncropped photo was published in error on Mail Online, and the legal advice would have been not to publish.
The error was discovered by the freelance journalist who wrote the story and he alerted newsdesk staff, who immediately removed it.
It was online for about a “comparatively brief” five hours during the evening of 3 November 2009, from about 17.04, and there was no evidence that it attracted large numbers of hits.
Immediately the Ward jury was sworn in on November 3, the trial judge directed the jurors not to “consult the internet”, and a further direction was given before they went home.
Caplan argued that in these circumstances there was “no real likelihood” that the story would come to the attention of sitting jurors.
There was also no “substantial risk” of real prejudice as the jurors could be trusted to abide by the jurors’ oath to try the case only on the evidence they heard in court.
Anthony Hudson, for The Sun’s publisher, News Group Newspapers, also stressed the jury had been warned not to consult the internet.
The number of visitors to the article was comparatively low and was not seen by any juror.
If it had been seen, it was “an extremely small risk” that any juror would have been prejudiced by the poor quality image published.
The picture, which appeared on the Sun Online at about 1.22am on November 4 2009, was from the same source as the Mail Online photo, but had been tightly cropped, and only part of the gun was visible.
The Attorney General could not prove to the criminal standard that any substantial risk of prejudice had occurred, argued Hudson.
Ward, aged 19, was convicted of murdering father-of-four Craig Wass, 39, by hitting him over the head with a brick as he tried to break up a fight between a group of young men and members of his family.
He was jailed for life in December 2009 and told he would serve a minimum of 14 years in prison.
Sentencing him, Judge Murphy told him his “wicked offence was fuelled by drink and resentment” and he was “unfortunately typical of what people have to put up with these days in certain areas of every town”.