Trial by Media

This weekend, the police in Avon & Somerset have charged a Dutch National Vincent Tabak with the murder of Joanna Yeates who went missing on the 17th December after returning home from a night out.

BBC News Report

The deceased’s body was found on Christmas Day 2010.  Within days, the police had arrested her landlord but released him on bail without charge. Whilst he was in custody, the British Media published numerous prejudicial articles about him and his alleged background and contents. Examples are shown below, but these are tame compared to the versions that have been removed from the internet

Daily Telegraph 30th December 2010

Daily Mail 31st December 2010

Daily Mirror 31st December 2010

Daily Mail 1st January 2011

Daily Mirror 1st January 2011

Interestingly, many of the newspapers have removed all traces of their articles from the internet- trying to re write history? Rupert Murdoch has removed all articles from The Sun and Times websites. There is no article referring to his arrest on those websites NOW.

Whilst I am not usually a fan of the Guardian newspaper, it has at least tried to highlight the problems resulting from the other newspapers breaching of the Contempt of Court Act in relation to their reports.

The Guardian 2nd January 2011

Guardian 7th January 2011

Guardian 10th January 2011

The Crown Prosecution Service have guidance on their website at: CPS Guidance

Strict Liability Contempt under the Contempt of Court Act 1981

Strict liability contempt (refer to the law earlier in this chapter) applies to publications (including broadcasts) addressed to the public at large or any section of the public, which create a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced. The strict liability rule only applies to legal proceedings that are “active” at the time of the publication, and may render the publication a contempt regardless of any intent to interfere with the course of justice in the proceedings. (Archbold 28-59 to 28-61).

The absence of the requirement to prove intention distinguishes it from the common law variant. Common law contempt may be committed where proceedings are pending or imminent (albeit not necessarily active for the purposes of the 1981 Act), and where there is actual intent to interfere with the administration of justice in those proceedings.

Active”, for the purposes of section 2(3) of the 1981 Act, is defined in Schedule 1 of the Act as including the issue of a summons or the arrest without warrant of a defendant (Archbold 28-62). Proceedings cease to be active for the purposes of the Act where they conclude by, inter alia, acquittal/sentence, any other order bringing proceedings to an end, or by discontinuance/operation of law. Where a warrant has been issued, proceedings cease to be active once twelve months’ have elapsed without the suspect’s arrest, and – where there has been an arrest – when the suspect is released without charge otherwise than on bail.

Whether the publication creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice is judged at the time of publication. The longer the gap between publication and the trial (‘the fade factor’), the less the substantial risk of serious prejudice is likely to be. (Archbold 28-74 to 28-76).

Now, I appreciate that those reading this who live abroad may be surprised to see such restrictions on the media. The restriction have worked here and have helped to ensure that trials are conducted fairly in court on the evidence and not via the media.

The worrying thing to me is that we have a law prohibiting actions, but it is rare the law is enforced. We should either have the law and enforce it, or we should abolish the law. The current uncertainty is not helpful.


Now, turn to the position of Christopher Jeffries, the landlord, who was the victim of much bile in the media. He is apparently innocent of any crime, yet as a result of the media coverage will always have the stigma of being connected to this murder and also accused inter alia of being a pervert, having paedophile friends etc. Is this acceptable?

I personally would hope to see Mr Jefferies sue the relevant publications for defamation of character.

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