Sun and Mail fined £15,000 for contempt of court
19 July 2011
Attorney General v Associated Newspapers Ltd & Anor  EWHC 1894 (Admin) – Read judgment
The High Court has handed down fines of £15,000 each and to Associated Newspapers and News Group Newspapers (NGN), owners of The Daily Mail and The Sun, for contempt of court. The companies will also have to pay £28,117.23 to cover the Attorney General’s costs. This blog’s co-editor Angus McCullough QC appeared for the Attorney General in the case but is not the writer of this post.
The newspapers’ owners, particularly NGN, probably have other things on their minds at the moment. But the fines, which relate to contempt proceedings decided in March (read judgment / my post) represent something of a landmark, as they are the first relating to online publication. In this case, The Sun Online and Mail Online published pictures of Ryan Ward holding a gun whilst he was on trial for murder.
The judgment in March contained an important warning for bloggers, tweeters and journalists who use instant news to report on criminal trials. Lord Justice Moses observed that ”instant news requires instant and effective protection for the integrity of a criminal trial“. For those worried by that warning, I posted Avoiding contempt of court: Tips for bloggers and tweeters.
In deciding the appropriate level of fine, Lord Justice Moses took into account the fact that both Defendants had apologised to the Attorney General. He used as guidance the case of AG v ITV Central  EWHC 1984, in which the publication of a defendant’s previous convictions on the first day of trial, causing a trial to be postponed, attracted a fine of £25,000.
It is not entirely clear how Lord Justice Moses arrived at the fines of £15,000, but he did reiterate that it mattered not whether any of the jurors did in fact see the images; rather, the fact that there was a “substantial risk” that they might do so was sufficient.
The current Attorney General has been active in pursuing newspapers in contempt proceedings. Earlier this month proceedings were brought against The Sun and Daily Mirror in respect of their reporting of the Jo Yeates murder, and in particular their treatment of an early suspect, Christopher Jeffries.
Given the recent phone hacking allegations, the public mood may encourage the Attorney, for the moment at least, to take a strong line in such cases. Newspapers and other online sources should keep a careful eye on how they report criminal cases in order to avoid prosecution.
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