The High Court ruled today that articles published in The Sun and Daily Mirror following the arrest of a suspect by police investigating the killing of landscape architect Joanna Yeates were in contempt of court.
A panel of three judges – which includes Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice – fined the Mirror’s publishers £50,000 and The Sun’s publishers £18,000. Judges had reserved judgment after listening to arguments from all sides at a hearing in London earlier this month.
They said both tabloid newspapers had breached contempt laws in reports about Miss Yeates’s landlord, Christopher Jefferies.
Attorney General Dominic Grieve had brought contempt proceedings and told judges that reports would have posed a “substantial risk” of prejudicing any trial Jefferies might have faced.
Both newspapers had disputed Grieve’s allegations and denied contempt.
Judges had reserved judgment after listening to arguments from all sides at a hearing in London earlier this month.
Yeates, 25, who lived in Clifton, Bristol, disappeared on 17 December 2010 after going for Christmas drinks with colleagues. Herbody was found on a roadside verge in Failand, Somerset, on Christmas Day.
Jefferies, a retired teacher in his 60s, was arrested on 30 December. He was subsequently released without charge and was “entirely innocent of any involvement”, Grieve told judges.
Grieve said his concerns related to articles in the Daily Mirror on 31 December and 1 January and in The Sun on 1 January.
Judges were told that one Daily Mirror front page carried the headline “Jo Suspect is Peeping Tom” beneath a photograph of Jefferies, and another front-page headline read “Was Killer Waiting In Jo’s Flat?”, with the sub-headings “Police seize bedding for tests” and “Landlord held until Tuesday” below.
The Sun’s front-page headline read “Obsessed By Death” next to a photograph of Jefferies and below the words “Jo Suspect ‘Scared Kids'”.
Grieve said material in the articles gave an “overall impression” that Jefferies had a “propensity” to commit the kind of offences for which he had been arrested.
Lawyers representing Mirror Group Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mirror, and News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, said reports did not suggest Jefferies had a “propensity” to murder and said jurors would not have been prejudiced.
They said memories would have faded by the time of any trial and jurors would have followed the directions of a trial judge.
A 33-year-old engineer has admitted killing Miss Yeates.
Dutchman Vincent Tabak has pleaded guilty to manslaughter but denies murder.
Tabak, who lived next door to Yeates, is due to go on trial accused of murder at Bristol Crown Court in October.
The Attorney General said after the ruling: “I welcome today’s judgment.
“While there was a great amount of speculation and copy relating to Mr Jefferies across much of the media, these three pieces of newspaper coverage were a different matter.
“They breached the Contempt of Court Act and the court has found that there was a risk of serious prejudice to any future trial.
“This prosecution is a reminder to the Press that the Contempt of Court Act applies from the time of arrest.”
Earlier today at the High Court, Jefferies accepted “substantial” undisclosed libel damages from eight newspapers over allegations made against him over the death of Miss Yeates.
The retired schoolmaster was not at court for the settlement of his actions against the publishers of the Sun, the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, the Daily Mail, the Daily Record, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and the Scotsman.