AddThis SmartLayers

Woolwich and the law of contempt in the digital age

Whatever you thought about the coverage of Lee Rigby’s death, one thing is certain – it will fuel the calls for an overhaul of contempt law.

Last Wednesday, a young soldier was brutally killed in broad daylight and what happened afterwards was witnessed by many.

Police intervened, both suspects ended up being shot by officers, they were taken to hospital and arrested.

The law of contempt states that nothing can be published which presents a “substantial risk of significant prejudice” to any prospective trial, once proceedings have become active.

Arrest is one of the events which trigger active proceedings and so there can be no doubt that from late-afternoon last Wednesday, proceedings were active and contempt law applicable.

Despite this, what I, and I am sure many of you, saw last week, seemed on the face of it to go much further than what is usually published or broadcast after arrest.  Yet it also seemed right, given the extraordinary events which unfolded after the killing, that such images and footage should be shown so the public could comprehend what had happened.

Video footage and photographs taken by members of the public and news organisations, appeared in both the mainstream press and on social media sites in all their gory detail.  Biographical information about the suspects also featured heavily in commentary during the days that followed.

So had we all lost our minds or did the extremely unusual circumstances of this horrific killing mean that the rules were somehow different?

I’d suggest that it was the latter but I think Wednesday afternoon has highlighted another way in which the current contempt law is struggling to cope with the modern, digital age.

Lots of people now have cameras and video cameras with them at all times, incorporated into their phones.  There are numerous ways of disseminating photos, video and information very rapidly.  On Wednesday afternoon, this meant that within hours of the atrocity, there was a maelstrom of online media activity.

Like a snowball, the coverage grew and grew until most of us following it felt we had a pretty clear idea of what happened and why.

In order to assemble a truly neutral jury for any future trial of these suspects, one imagines enquires being made to locate individuals who were in a coma last week but fully recovered in time for the trial.

For a number of reasons, there may never be a trial.  However, we know from the Sun’s fine for a breach of reporting restrictions earlier this year, that indications there won’t be a trial, do not give a green light for the publication of prejudicial material.

At the end of last week, the Attorney General released a reminder about contempt in response to the early Woolwich coverage.  This feels a little bit like asking for the stable door to be shut after the horse has bolted.

What can possibly be achieved by reining in the coverage at this stage?  If nothing else, there could be concern that this case has the potential to make a mockery of a law which is already facing much criticism.

In addition, the Courts accept that with time, people’s memories of media coverage diminish and so what might be prejudicial if published two days before a trial starts, would not have been if published nine months before that.  As time passes, perhaps the Woolwich coverage will become increasingly anodyne in the hope that we’ll all forget what we’d previously seen.  Yet I struggle to believe that anyone will quickly forget the extraordinary images of the aftermath of Lee Rigby’s death, they will surely stand out in the collective consciousness for quite some time.

Contempt law is currently under review by the Law Commission and it seems likely that coverage of the Woolwich killing will only add to the head-scratching already underway.

As I mentioned in an article on this site a few months ago, I believe that the best way to deal with contempt in the digital age is to place more emphasis on directing and educating juries, rather than trying to force a law created in 1981 onto a society which, in terms of information and media, more closely resembles the Star Trek universe than early Thatcher-era Britain.

One comment

You can follow all replies to this entry through the comments feed.
  • June 6, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    The modernisation or digitisation of society is a poor argument for reform of contempt laws In the 1960s the Krays committal hearings were reported in full including highly contentious evidence. The jury were though sensible enough to put pre-trial coverage out of their minds.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(0)