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
A contempt of court charge brought against former NI Secretary Peter Hain regarding criticisms he made of a judge in Northern Ireland has been dropped. Hain had written to Attorney General John Larkin about the remarks, stressing he never intended to question Lord Justice Paul Girvan’s motivation in handling a judicial review. Larkin said the case against Mr Hain — who had faced a charge of “scandalising a judge” despite doubts from his lawyers over the existence of the offence — no longer needed to continue.
News that Peter Hain MP may face contempt of court charges in Northern Ireland is disturbing, but sadly not especially surprising.
Post-GFA Northern Ireland does not have a notably good record on free speech and privacy. Journalists such as Suzanne Breen and Henry McDonald have been put under pressure to reveal their sources, and MP Ian Paisley Junior has faced contempt charges after refusing to divulge confidential correspondence with a constituent.
Hain is facing prosecution under common law contempt charges for, essentially, being rude about a judge. In his memoir published earlier this year, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales described Lord Justice Girvan as acting as if he was “off his rocker” in a 2006 ruling.
The Attorney General of Northern Ireland is now pursuing Hain and his publisher Biteback publishing (run by Iain Dale) for contempt, claiming Hain’s comments “constitute unwarranted abuse of a judge in his judicial capacity that undermines the administration of justice in this jurisdiction, and consequently constitute a contempt of court” .
Essentially the suggestion is that we should not criticise judges, lest we shatter the faith of the wider community in the courts. Leave aside the obvious fact that Northern Ireland’s courts are not exactly seen as citadels of justice by many people in the country, and we’re still left with the notion that a branch of the state should be beyond criticism. This is a dangerous idea, and an absurd move by the Attorney General. No matter what your political allegiance, it is vital that Hain and Dail are supported.
Ryan Parry, the Daily Mirror journalist whose byline appeared on the libellous coverage of wrongly arrested Bristol landlord Chris Jefferies said the episode was a “watershed moment” for the British media.
“All we can do is learn from this and improve for the future,” Parry told the Leveson Inquiry. The Daily Mirror was fined £50,000 and The Sun £18,000 respectively for contempt of court over its coverage of Jefferies. It was revealed today that the Sun has withdrawn its Supreme Court appeal against the contempt ruling, while the Mirror’s appeal is ongoing.
Parry said he was pleased with how he had conducted himself on the coverage of Jefferies, who was wrongly arrested on suspicion of murdering his tenant Joanna Yeates in December 2010.
“If he came across…as an eccentric, it’s because the evidence suggested he was,” Parry said of the correspondence he had had with Jefferies’ former students. One story carried the headline “Nutty Professor”, while in others Jefferies was referred to an “oddball”.
Gary O’Shea, a journalist at the Sun who had also covered the case, told the Inquiry that their coverage should have been more “neutral and dispassionate”, and said that the paper’s libel settlement with Jefferies was an acceptance of this.
“We don’t often go wrong, we don’t often make mistakes, and when we do they’re honest mistakes,” O’Shea said. The paper’s publishing director, Stephen Waring, also took responsibility for a headline in a story about Jefferies titled “Obsessed by death”, and apologised to the former teacher.
Earlier in the day, the Inquiry heard from a selection of women’s groups who discussed the sexualisation of women in media. Anna Van Heeswijk, of pressure group Object, said the redtops’ page 3 feature existed “for the sole purpose” of women being sex objects.
Van Heeswijk added that violence is often trivialised and eroticised in the papers, and pushed for “consistent” regulation of print media, arguing that the press should abide by the taste and decency watershed that determines what can be broadcast on television before 9pm.
Heather Harvey of Eaves Housing for Women told the Inquiry that media coverage of women and the sexist abuse they may encounter online “actually curtails and limits” women’s freedom of expression and their ability to engage in public debate.
Overhyped headlines and inaccurate stories were also slammed today. Inayat Bunglawala of Muslim group Engage accused the Daily Express and the Daily Star of being “the most egregious offenders” in relation to Britain’s Muslim community. He and Robert Jay QC read through a series of headlines from the two redtops — one from the Express read “Christmas is banned, it offends Muslims” — which Bunglawala said were aimed at increasing hatred and prejudice against Muslims.
Bunglawala noted that he got a one-paragraph clarification after complaining to the Press Complaints Commission about a story in the Star that claimed remembrance poppies were banned in Muslim areas. He added that it was a “very odd situation” that the Express and the Star are not members of the PCC.
Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre praised Britain’s “excellent” science journalists but blamed sub-editors for writing inaccurate headlines. She cited a report in the Independent today headlined “Once they were blind, now they see. Patients cured by stem cell ‘miracle'”, which describes how two blind people have shown signs of being able to see again.
“Within science extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, but in the newsroom it’s the exact opposite,” Fox said, lamenting media reports of preliminary findings. “It would solve a lot of problems if journalists just didn’t over-claim for these stories.”
The Inquiry continues tomorrow with evidence from journalists Roy Greenslade and David Allen Green, RMT union leader Bob Crow and further testimony from investigative journalist Mazher Mahmood.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson