Censuring the media's lack of censorship

The High Court must decide whether two newspapers' stories were likely to influence a jury's decision, reports Roger Pearson. Judgment is pending in a contempt of court case involving the Manchester Evening News and the Daily Mail.

The Attorney General, John Morris, has accused the newspapers of contempt for publishing stories about a Salford home help who was accused of stealing from the elderly woman she was caring for.

After the elderly woman's sons became suspicious that money was being stolen, they set up a video camera in her kitchen where she kept her money in the refrigerator.

The home help was caught on video taking money and, after the video was handed over to the Manchester Evening News, both newspapers carried stories about the incident.

However, the home help had been arrested, interviewed by police and was due to appear before magistrates by the time that the articles were published.

Initially the case was adjourned but the woman appeared before magistrates about two months later and pleaded guilty to theft.

Contempt moves were then taken against the newspapers and the editor of the Manchester Evening News, Michael Unger. Lord Justice Simon Brown and Mr Justice Owen were told that the principal issue in the case was whether, under the strict liability rules of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, the material published posed a substantial risk of prejudicing the course of justice.

The papers are arguing that there was nothing in the stories which was likely to have been led in court proceedings by the prosecution.

They also say juries have to be given credit for reaching their verdicts without being influenced by what they read in newspapers and that courts dealing with contempt proceedings should not lightly infer that juries will be influenced by articles such as the two at the centre of this case.