Newspaper tabloids in the headlines

 

This week the High Court found The Mirror and The Daily Mail guilty of contempt of court over their coverage of the trial of Levi Bellfield, who was convicted of abducting and murdering schoolgirl Milly Dowler. The two papers published information about Bellfield's background whilst judicial proceedings were ongoing; the information was printed after he had been convicted of the murder of Dowler, but the jury was still considering whether he was guilty of the attempted abduction of 11-year-old Rachel Cowles. The attempted abduction had taken place one day before Millie Dowler disappeared.

Contempt of court allegations were brought against the papers by the Attorney General, Dominique Grieve. The high court found the extensive media coverage troublesome, and considered that the articles produced by The Mirror and The Daily Mail had been "highly prejudicial".

Origin of information

After the articles were published, the judge, considering Bellfield's actions, saw no option but to dismiss the jury. As such, no ruling was ever reached on Bellfield's alleged attempted abduction of Cowles. The jurors were certainly aware of the fact that Bellfield was far from a first-time offender, however the extensive media coverage still risked to unduly influence the jury.

Critics of the high court ruling have argued that the media articles did not disclose anything more severe than the information already provided to the jury in court. Regardless, the origins of the information differed significantly and the jury is only allowed to consider the information submitted to them in court when reaching a decision.

The case sends an important signal to media on when reporting practices may be considered to jeopardise a defendant's right to a fair trial. Even though information may be in the public interest, it may need to be disclosed at a later date if its publication date risks interfering with the justice system.

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