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Wednesday, February 02, 2011 

Screaming until sick and contempt of court.

Whenever a tabloid newspaper starts screaming about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, even if in reality the real freedom being threatened is the freedom to print endless stories about which pinheaded footballer is shagging which slapper this week, it often pays to wonder what else happens to be going on at the same time. After all, even while it doesn't normally take much for the ever put upon souls of what used to be Fleet Street to start bleating about how their livelihood is being threatened by the onward march of a stifling privacy law, it's more often than not also a device to distract from some previous unpleasantness they've been involved in which is either about to be exposed or settled in court.

At the moment of course the spectre of the phone-hacking scandal continues to hang heavy, mainly over the tabloids but it wouldn't be a surprise if eventually some of the former broadsheets were also pulled in, their high minded principles on just what is and isn't permissible and what is and isn't in the public interest likely to be shown to be just as dubious as those of their looked down upon colleagues in the gutter press. As much as the Sun's bilious outrage of yesterday was also helpful in deflecting attention away from the antics of the hacks on its sister newspaper, its main objective other than ranting about the injustice of it all appears to have been to let everyone know about how dedicated the paper is to such things as the rule of law. By a strange coincidence, today just happened to be the day the attorney general took the Sun and the Daily Mail up before the beak over what he considers to have been a flagrant breach of the Contempt of Court Act.

While we won't get the full details until Lord Justice Owen and Moses reach a decision, the case involves not the print versions but internet sites of the two papers. Both it seems published a photograph of Ryan Ward, subsequently convicted of the murder of Craig Wass. The photograph of Ward, apparently showing him posing with "what seemed to be a gun", presumably came to the attention of the defence in the case, who tried to use it to get the jury discharged, something the judge decided wasn't necessary as he didn't believe any of its members had been influenced by material available on the internet. This is an issue of increasing concern as, despite instruction by the judge, it's suspected that many performing jury service have gone home midway through a case and searched the internet for those they've been hearing evidence about. With newspaper websites often archiving initial reports on investigations into murders, as well as social networking sites containing profiles which can often be incriminating in themselves, it's something of a wonder that such a case hasn't come before the High Court before.

Whether the case was started under the previous attorney general or not we also don't seem to know, at least not from the initial reporting. If it is purely the work of Dominic Grieve, then it does suggest that he's taking a more active approach to contempt than his Labour predecessors at times did: he had already previously stepped in to remind the media of their duties during the period of mass speculation concerning the murder of Joanna Yeates. It's also worth remembering that Grieve during his brief spell as shadow home secretary had the audacity to tell then Sun editor Rebekah Brooks (nee Wade) to her face that he thought her coverage of crime was too sensationalist, prompting Brooks to inform David Cameron that he unless he was moved out of the post the Sun wouldn't be able to support the Conservatives at the election.

There's definitely a fine line to be drawn between the potential for jury members to be influenced by information easily available on the internet and the potential impact such rules can have on the good practice of the archiving of material. There's also the other hurdle to be circumvented, that even if material hosted on servers in the UK can be removed or temporarily taken down, reports and potentially prejudicial information hosted abroad will almost certainly remain. These distinctions don't however seem to have influenced either of those representing the Mail and Sun, who instead decided to focus on the laughably weak arguments that there was an "insubstantial" risk of prejudice as the judge had repeatedly warned jurors not to consult the internet, as if his word was enough to ensure that they wouldn't so much as touch a computer screen after they had gone home of an evening, and the even more ridiculous claim from the Sun's representative that as the image was "poor quality" there was an "extremely small risk" any juror would have prejudiced by it. Presumably the article noted the fact that the defendant in the case appeared to be posing with a gun, or did the piece consist solely of an unexplained blurry photograph of someone holding something?

Whatever the judgement reached and the consequences it has for a media that has changed vastly since the contempt act was drawn up in 1981, it's always good to know that regardless of the inexorable passing of time, there's every reason to remain cynical about the motives of a newspaper that cries freedom just before it finds itself in the dock.

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