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Attorney General Dominic Grieve has cautioned against journalists assuming that they are free to report what is said in parliament without fear of bring prosecuted.
Speaking at City University, London, Grieve said “it is still an open question as to whether something said in parliament in breach of a court order may be repeated in the press.”
He explained that journalists are protected by qualified privilege in producing a “a fair and accurate report of proceedings”, but warned that “just because something has been said does not mean it can be repeated out of context”.
He said that the privilege to report parliamentary proceedings does not necessarily extend to all publications that are not published by order of parliament, and that this has “yet to be authoritatively decided but will shortly be considered further by parliament.”
He referred to the case earlier this year in which MPs took advantage of parliamentary privilege to reveal the identities of public figures that were protected by injunctions. Grieve argued that it “ill serves the parliamentary process if court orders are openly flouted for no good reason”.
He also criticised the British press for what he saw as irresponsible reporting. Citing the tabloids’ coverage of Chris Jefferies, who was wrongly arrested by police investigating the murder of Bristol woman Joanna Yeates, Grieve said the British press had increasingly tested the boundaries of what was acceptable in reporting criminal cases. “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,” he said.
He went on to suggest the need for a “moral imperative…to observe common decency when reporting on such cases.”
He added that the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which allowed a defendant’s previous convictions to be given in evidence at a trial, may have exacerbated matters. It is essential, he argued, “that jurors are not contaminated by material which has not been presented to them as evidence — it is only upon the evidence that their verdict must be based.”
He reiterated maintaining the “sanctity” of the jury room, expressing concern that “uncontrolled, such reporting could eventually undermine the jury system”.
He highlighted the “challenge” of the internet, whose inhabitants often feel “unconstrained by the laws of the land.” The belief that, so long as something is published in cyberspace there is no need to respect libel or contempt laws was, he said, “mistaken”.
Grieve reiterated he was a staunch defender of the freedom of the press, and wanted to build a consensus with bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission. He said meetings with the PCC and other media organisations suggested the press would welcome more advisory notices — as issued in the case of Jefferies — which highlight potential problems with coverage.
Grieve said that, although it has been practice to issue advisory notices in only the most extreme of cases, that did not mean that the absence of a notice in a case meant it is “open season”.
Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, Grieve has this year successfully prosecuted the Sun and the Mirror for its treatment of Jefferies. The papers were fined £18,000 and £50,000 respectively. Grieve is also currently pursuing contempt actions against Sky News and the Spectator.
Marta Cooper is an editorial assistant at Index on Censorship