Where is the line?

“To be in contempt of court, according to the act, a publication must create a “substantial risk” that the course of justice in active proceedings “will be seriously impeded or prejudiced”. Proceedings become active once an ARREST is made, or a warrant for someone’s arrest has been issued.”

This is how contempt of court was described in the Media Guardian’s front page story this morning. I have capitalised the word arrest here for a reason. It seems to be this concept which has been causing journalists confusion, and as one annonymous reporter commented in the article, is seems in practice that active proceedings begin not when an arrest has been made but when charges have been brought.

The article looks at the example of Joanna Yeates’ murder, and particularly the arrest of her landlord, Christopher Jefferies, who has since been released on police bail, and no charges made against him. It has brought into the limelight this issue of contempt of court, with many tabloids, as-well as ITV being criticised for their coverage of the case in general and the arrest in particular. When it came to arrest, journalists have been condemned for the coverage of the background and lifestyle of the “65-year-old “eccentric””.

The case brings into the spotlight, the many worries and issues surrounding contempt of court. Firstly, the changing world of media with the emergence of the online. Twitter fundamentally changed the way news is reported. Not only does it mean that quick and constant updates are needed throughout the day, but also that anyone and everyone can not comment on events. It is hard to vet all users of the internet, and most today will have no understanding of phrases such as contempt of court, libel and defamation. It is also no longer feasible that reporters will only report the major developments of the case. With rolling news, twitter feeds and online news sites, they are constantly looking for a new and fresh perspective of a story. This online world, pushes further the idea of reporters outdoing one another, and constantly looking for the ‘scoop’. Is it this which is pushing them to push the boundaries of contempt? Is it this constant need for the news and the different (competing with all other news outlets, as well as the thousands of other contributors online) which is making leading to these problems?

Some say no. Yes, it is true that new developments can be reported right away online, quick updates here and there throughout the day. And yes, media outlets follow the world of twitter, taking lead whenever, and wherever they may occur. But these statements are checked and verified before they are ever placed under the banner of a specific media outlet. However, it would seem that the constant news has had some effect on what media outlets report. As the article commented is goes some way to explain “why so much coverage is speculative and why, when a suspect is arrested, reporters try to dig up all the background they can”. However, does this really explain why so many media outlets are dancing over the line of contempt, and some crossing it.

Maybe it is the confusion that surrounds the Contempt of Court Act. Thirty years after it’s introduction, does it fully represent the modern media world. Many argue it has always created some confusion, and this has only grown. As some reporter’s admit many do not even think about contempt until someone is charged with it, and one tabloid executive quoted in the article this morning says even the media lawyers don’t know where the line stands. This is further exacerbated as some outlets push the boundaries, blurring the line for others. This is particularly apparent with the local-national divide. Local newspapers (many with much less money to fight the lawsuits which may arise) can not see the line, when national newspapers are pushing the boundaries so far, and when even the national no loner no where the definitive line stands.

One thing is for sure, and that is that events and eventually court cases such as the death of Joanna Yeates’ have always and will always need the media. The media are needed to push forward the case, keep it in the public’s eyes and to bring forward people who may be able to help proceedings. It will never be possible to block out the media, so what can be done?

Some argue for contempt of court to be scrapped altogether. Many want Britain to move towards a more American style of reporting, where although Contempt still exists, cases are broadcast on television, and where channels and website dedicated to prosecutions allow evidence to be accessed and members of the public to vote on matters relating to the trail as a “13th juror”. I don’t know how far the media would like the UK to go towards this, but some would like the restrictions on the media lifted.

In the new global environment the media sits in it will be harder and harder for the courts to restrict what jurors will see. Even if British report becomes more restrictive foreign media outlets and the blogosphere, will still make news readily available. And what about the instructions the jury get at the begin of the case, not to take notice of the media, not to go searching on the Internet for more information, but to take the information in the trail alone, and build their decision on the evidence in front of them. If it were a judge sitting the case alone, people would expect him to be above the reporting of the case, should the public be given the same credit? There are cases available for both arguments. in 1999 a publication by the sun, led to a murder trail led to the charge being dropped. The publications came just the jury were retiring and so was fresh in all minds at the time of the decision. On the other hand, it was consider the jury could rise above the huge quantity of media coverage surrounding the Rosemary West trail.

Either-way, whether the conditions of Contempt become more restrictive, or whether this 30-year-old law has come to the end of it’s life, one thing is for sure, this is a debate which is not going to go away. The media are always going to report on the build up to trials and trials themselves, information is always going to be available for potential jurors, and the debate on how these jurors are influenced will continue to rage.

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