Attorney General warns newspapers over contempt

Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC has issued new warnings on contempt of court, saying news organisations will face prosecution if they publish material which could prejudice court proceedings.

Speaking at City University school of journalism on Thursday evening (1 December), Grieve said newspapers had lost any sense of self-restraint and that juries risked being ‘contaminated’ by assiduous reports relating to court cases.

His warnings following a series of prosecutions over the last year over breaches by newspapers of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

Grieve said: “At times it appeared to me the press had lost any sense of internal constraint and felt able, indeed entitled, to print what they wished, shielded by the right of ’freedom of expression’ without any of the concomitant responsibilities.”

Grieve added that internet bloggers and tweeters should not consider themselves immune from the “the law of the land.”

“The increasing prominence of online media does not mean they are exempted from the rule of law,” he said.

“Unlike major news organisations, which on the whole act in a responsible and measured manner, the inhabitants of the internet often feel themselves to be unconstrained by the laws of the land.

“There is a certain belief that so long as something is published in cyberspace there is no need to respect the laws of contempt or libel. This is a mistake. The revolution in methods of communication cannot change what the Lord Chief Justice has termed ’essential principles’ and that is why contempt proceedings will be brought by me when required.”

Grieve also warned newspapers they may not be fully protected in reporting speeches in parliament that breach court orders, adding that the issue of parliamentary privilege would soon be debated.

Grieve is currently launching a contempt of court case against the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror over coverage of the conviction of Milly Dowler’s killer Levi Bellfield (22 November 2011).