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Second-guessing contempt, and fanciful libel – "love it!"

The contempt laws continue to raise difficult questions about media coverage of on-going court cases.

One example concerns the recent press interview of Sally Murrer, the Milton Keynes Citizen journalist charged with aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office.

She is accused of procuring leaked stories from police officer Mark Kearney, who it transpires is also the officer embroiled in the row over the bugging of Sadiq Khan MP.

With proceedings active, she was interviewed then quoted as saying her own prosecution might have been motivated by a police desire to discredit Mr Kearney as a whistleblower, and herself as a reporter, before Mr Kearney went public with any revelations about the bugging of the MP.

It was also prominently reported that she believed the case could be “one of the biggest cover-ups this country has ever seen”.

It was robust public interest reporting but questions about interviewing and quoting defendants inevitably arise, in the grey area that our contempt laws have recently become.

Ill-defined boundaries are marked by S.2 of the Contempt of Court Act, which imposes strict liability for publications that create a substantial risk of serious impediment or prejudice, and by S.5 of the Act, which protects publications made in good faith about public interest matters where the risk of impediment or prejudice is merely incidental to the discussion.

How to steer a safe course between those limits is often anyone’s guess.

After the unsuccessful attempts to secure contempt injunctions against the Guardian and BBC last year over reports of the cash-for-honours investigation, former Attorney General Lord Goldsmith appeared to embrace more open reporting of criminal investigations.

In a speech at the Reform Club last summer, he said he was in favour of providing “more, but controlled, information to the public” in cases where there is a strong public interest, adding: “There is a very proper public interest in knowing what the risks are in our society.”

There has since been much talk of the need for a review of the contempt laws. In the meantime, the media are left wondering just how much can, and can’t, be reported.

In the realm of libel law, former Big Brother contestant Lisa Jeynes and a Jamaican police officer have been making headlines.

Ms Jeynes’ libel case shows how some claimants hopelessly exaggerate what words actually mean.

She sued over a “love it!” magazine front cover, which contained a photograph of her accompanied by the words “BB’s Lisa ‘The Geezer’ – My false boobs fell out on a date with James Hewitt”.

Astonishingly, she contended the words meant she was either a man posing as a woman, or a transgender person who had been a man and become a woman.

The Court of Appeal decided the judge had been right to strike out her claim, because her alleged meanings were “fanciful and absurd”.

Elsewhere, in a case appealed from Jamaica, the Privy Council helpfully clarified that the Reynolds qualified privilege defence is not confined to traditional media publications.

It follows Mr Justice Eady’s earlier High Court ruling that Reynolds is not restricted to traditional investigative journalism and could in theory also apply to readers’ letters and follow-ups (see article on Malik v Newspost.

Jamaica Labour Party leader Edward Seaga made defamatory remarks about a senior police officer, Leslie Harper, in a speech at a public meeting which was widely reported.

Lord Carswell said Reynolds had heralded a “liberalisation” of traditional rules on qualified privilege and there was no reason why it should not extend to publications in any medium by anyone who published information of public interest.

Seaga’s speech could therefore attract privilege even though it was not typical journalism. On the facts, however, he had not taken sufficient care to check the reliability of his information in line with the 10 factors set out by Lord Nicholls in the Reynolds case, and his claim to privilege failed. Substantial damages were upheld.

Finally, the European Court of Justice has handed down an interesting ruling that record companies cannot require telecoms organisations to disclose the personal details of those alleged to be sharing online copyright material without permission.

Telefonica had declined to identify its customers. The court decided private information about customers should only be released in cases involving crime or public security.