Oct 24 2008

Contempt: time to lose the law

Do juries need to be protected from media coverage that could prejudice their decisions in court?

 In a lively public debate at Polis I felt that the ground had shifted. Nick Davis felt that it had shifted because of the decline in court reporting (along with all kinds of reporting). Joshua Rozenberg thought that it had shifted because of the Internet. Barrister Mark Haslam agreed that the Internet meant that it was now impossible to cut a jury off from full coverage of a suspect’s life or details of a case. But he insisted that this did not mean that the system should abandon any legal attempt to restrict prejudicial coverage.  I am deeply sympathetic to the view of American journalism academic Jonathon Kotler who enthusiastically endorsed the open US system which puts the freedom of speech before concerns for prejudice.  But it is not just journalists, like Neil Wallis at the News of The World, who think contempt laws should be liberalised or removed. One factor that has pushed the boundaries of contempt is terrorism. The authorities want the public to realise the magnitude and seriousness of the terrorist threat. So they have deliberately put facts into the public domain which in the past would have been seen as prejudicial. 


Is there any need for legal protection at all? If so, what would it look like? That’s one of the issues for a BBC/Polis/LSE Law seminar today with some very high-powered judges, journalists and academics. 

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One Response to Contempt: time to lose the law

  1. David Banks says:


    It would have made for a very entertaining contempt case after a police raid on suspected terrorists if the chief witness for the defence had been the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, who just hours after the raids said they had smashed a terrorist cell, words duly reported.

    But twas ever thus in terror cases. Papers always got away with more in advance of IRA trials as well.

    The US comparison doesn’t always hold true though, as the press there is not so prone to the excesses of their UK cousins in advance of trial, save in the truly sensational such as OJ.

    In my experience of advising UK newsrooms though, newsdesks worry too much about contempt and not enough about libel.

    You really have to go some to be done for contempt, after all, prosecution isn’t on the whim of a local mag or judge, it has to be authorised by the Attorney General’s office.

    Nowadays, I’d be far more worried about what a juror has Googled than what they read in a paper.

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