UK: Spectator fined after admitting reporting breach

The Spectator has been ordered to pay £5,600 after admitting a November 2011 article about the trial of Stephen Lawrence‘s killers breached a court order. Associate editor Rod Liddle’s piece claimed defendants Gary Dobson and David Norris — who were convicted in January 2012 of Lawrence’s 1993 murder — would not get a fair trial. It appeared in the magazine after the trial had started and an order imposed on reports that could influence the jury’s view of the defendants. The judge said the article caused a brief moment in which the trial was in jeopardy, but the magazine’s swift apology and removal of the piece online meant it was not undermined. The magazine’s lawyer apologised for its “bitterly regrettable” failure to make checks.

Liddle was wrong to write Lawrence trial article, and the Spectator was wrong to publish it

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

Link and be damned?

Siobhain Butterworth over at the Guardian law blog draws asks if a recent ruling by Mr Justice Tugendhat in the case of IslamExpo versus the Spectator magazine will have an impact on the web’s culture of linking.

A question that remains to be resolved is whether a link to a web page that contains defamatory statements about someone is actionable. The high court’s decision in the recent Spectator case looks at the hyperlinking question from another angle. Can the web pages a publisher links to inform the meaning of an article?

Tugendhat ruled that in this case, linked articles (from Stephen Pollard’s post to Harry’s Place, among others) must be assumed to be part of the overall context of the piece.

This would seem to make sense. Links are inserted exactly to provide context and reference points.

But there is a question over whether the insertion of a link makes one liable. If I link to material, is it a specific endorsement. Or indeed, am I implicating the linked website in my own libellous allegation.

We’re still not sure. Tugendhat’s ruling on overall context is relevant in this specific case, but he is keen to point out “I do this without thereby intending to imply any ruling, one way or the other, as to whether that approach is right in law.”

So it would seem we’re really none the wiser.

Keep libel law out of politics

Busy times for Carter-Ruck of late. While the thoughts of the nation turn wearily to the general election campaign, the UK’s two top political magazines have been crossing swords with the UK’s top libel lawyers.
In today’s Spectator, editor Fraser Nelson reveals his ongoing battles with Charlie Whelan, former spin doctor for Gordon Brown and current political director of the powerful Unite union. Whelan, through Carter-Ruck, threatened legal action against the right-leaning magazine after it, er, claimed he had acted like a bully.

Nelson writes on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog

Last summer, The Spectator received a letter from Charlie Whelan’s solicitors complaining about this post – where we mention their client’s spot of bother with his colleagues at Unite. Carter-Ruck were instructed on one of the no-win-no-fee deals: it cost Whelan nothing to sue, but could cost us thousands to defend. So the lawyer’s letter is, by itself, an effective form of intimidation.

Meanwhile, over at Carter-Ruck’s own website, we have this little snippet about the Spectator’s left-wing rival, the New Statesman:

Daniel Hannan MEP – An Apology
The New Statesman has apologised to Daniel Hannan, the Conservative MEP for Southeast England, in respect of defamatory allegations published on its website on 18 September 2009. The New Statesman has also paid Mr Hannan damages together with his legal costs.

The payout comes after a suggestion in a web article by James MacIntyre, suggesting the maverick Tory MEP may have made a racist comment about President Obama.

As mentioned yesterday, Traditional Ulster Voice’s Jim Allister, a QC, is threatening defamation action against North Antrim rival Ian Paisley Jr over information on an election leaflet.

Suggestion: shouldn’t our politicos stick to battling at the ballot box rather than the high court?