The Northern Ireland edition of the Sunday World and its editor have been fined £60,000 for contempt of court.
Judge Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Kerr said: “For an organ that claims to have been engaged in a high-minded campaign against malign influences in our community, it operated in an astonishingly slipshod way.
‘One is driven to the conclusion that the focus of the newspaper was on highly sensationalist reportage, couched in lurid and melodramatic language, rather than – as it should have been – on the checking of elementary facts.”
Contempt proceedings were started after articles in November 2005 and July 2006 about Laurence Kincaid and William Anderson, then due to stand trial at Belfast Crown Court on charges of intimidation, criminal damage and malicious wounding.
Their trial in January 2007 was put back after defence lawyers tried to have the hearing halted because of the Sunday World articles.
A ban on publicity surrounding the case was imposed but the Sunday World said this was not communicated to editor Jim McDowell.
The Sunday World’s publisher was fined £50,0000 and McDowell fined £10,000.
Sir Brian said: “This newspaper, which asserts that it is engaged in a fearless and altruistic crusade against drug dealers, was not even aware that it was the subject of an application to stay proceedings
‘One would have thought that, if they had a genuine concern about the activities of such as Kincaid and Anderson, the reporters involved in this much-vaunted campaign might at least have kept abreast of the criminal proceedings against them.
‘Had they done so, they would have been aware that, so far from advancing their avowed purpose, their reporting was placing in peril the successful prosecution of Kincaid and Anderson.”
The pair went on trial at Omagh Crown Court in January this year. Anderson was jailed for two years after pleading guilty to criminal damage and malicious wounding and Kincaid admitted criminal damage and received a nine-month suspended sentence.
McDowell and the publishers said the articles had been carried in the firm belief that the cases would not be heard before a jury.
Sir Brian said: “We feel bound to say that the newspaper’s self-proclaimed role of the fearless exposer of crime does not rest easily with the gross irresponsibility of its staff in failing to carry out the most elementary of checks.
‘Moreover, the sensationalist and graphic language in which the articles are expressed and the shallowness of their content do not distinguish them as intrepid exposes.”