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Liddle was wrong to write Lawrence trial article, and the Spectator was wrong to publish it
07 Jun 2012
BY BRIAN CATHCART

Rod Liddle was stupid to write his article on the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris, and the Spectator was stupid to publish it. Now the magazine has been fined — not for contempt of court, though anyone with a faint awareness of media law knows that law was broken, but for the even more straightforward offence of breaching a court order. A judge said don’t do it and they did it: it doesn’t get simpler.

Does the incident raise any more complicated issues? No doubt the case will be made.

Liddle thought the trial of Dobson and Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence was unfair, and he expressed this view in the Spectator while the trial was in progress. No problem there, you may think, except that well-established and well-known English law forbids such opinionating in public while the justice process is under way.

It does so, not as a form of authority-inspired censorship, not to inhibit discussion about the justice system and not because the system doesn’t really trust jurors, but to protect the weak and the innocent. The law exists because defendants, their lawyers and others who cared about justice argued for it and won the argument.

Liddle knew this. Now he may disagree with the law, but in a democracy the normal course of action for people who want to change a law is to make the case for change rather than to break the law.

Equally, if he believes strongly that Norris and Dobson are victims of a miscarriage of justice he was free to make that case after the verdict. There are, sadly, plenty of miscarriages of justice and there are quite a lot of people who want to draw attention to them. With rare exceptions they do so within the law.

Does Liddle really disagree so fundamentally with the law on contempt that he feels the need to break it? Does he really care so much about the case of Norris and Dobson that he will break the law to support them?

If so we can respect his views even if we question his methods, and perhaps we can look forward to seeing him engage in further acts of civil disobedience in pursuit of his cause. We can also expect him to explain that his past actions were calculated and deliberate (though the Spectator might not be happy about that).

If, on the other hand, this was a casual act of arrogance by someone who knew he personally would pay no price for it, how surprised would we be?

Brian Cathcart teaches journalism at Kingston University London and is a founder of the Hacked Off Campaign. in 2000, he won the Orwell Prize for his book The Case of Stephen Lawrence. He tweets at @BrianCathcart

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  11. David says:

    I agree.

    There are very few circumstances in which punishment should result from writing and publishing material. If Liddle and the Speccy had been fined specifically for writing a piece which was thought to risk prejudicing the jury – in the absence of a specific court order, on a judge’s whim – then it would have been an outrage.

    However, this is a completely different matter. This is a breach is a clear court order, directed to prevent – for example – reporting of the Lawrence defendants’ past convictions, and other matters which would potentially result in Jurors being the subject of advocacy and persuasion not only within a courtroom, but outside it as well. You can’t have a functioning system of justice without such orders being made.

    You might think that few jurors read the Spectator. I’d agree. But a court order is directed generally to newspapers and other publications at large. Driving through a red light is still a crime, even if no car is coming down the adjoining road.

  12. David says:

    I agree.

    There are very few circumstances in which punishment should result from writing and publishing material. If Liddle and the Speccy had been fined specifically for writing a piece which was thought to risk prejudicing the jury – in the absence of a specific court order, on a judge’s whim – then it would have been an outrage.

    However, this is a completely different matter. This is a breach is a clear court order, directed to prevent – for example – reporting of the Lawrence defendants’ past convictions, and other matters which would potentially result in Jurors being the subject of advocacy and persuasion not only within a courtroom, but outside it as well. You can’t have a functioning system of justice without such orders being made.

    You might think that few jurors read the Spectator. I’d agree. But a court order is directed generally to newspapers and other publications at large. Driving through a red light is still a crime, even if no car is coming down the adjoining road.

  13. csrster says:

    Presumably the relatively small fine reflects the fact the Speccie removed the article quickly (although not before I read it, or a version of it, on Liddle’s blog). It doesn’t make anybody involved less of an idiot.

  14. csrster says:

    Presumably the relatively small fine reflects the fact the Speccie removed the article quickly (although not before I read it, or a version of it, on Liddle’s blog). It doesn’t make anybody involved less of an idiot.

  15. Neuroskeptic says:

    “A judge said don’t do it and they did it: it doesn’t get simpler.”

    And yet this national publication got off with a token fine of just £5000. I wonder how much they paid Liddle for the column…?

    This penalty is essentially saying, go ahead and defy court orders, if you have a bit of cash to spare.

  16. Neuroskeptic says:

    “A judge said don’t do it and they did it: it doesn’t get simpler.”

    And yet this national publication got off with a token fine of just £5000. I wonder how much they paid Liddle for the column…?

    This penalty is essentially saying, go ahead and defy court orders, if you have a bit of cash to spare.