Levi Bellfield: too much too soon?
When the jury in the Milly Dowler case filed into court to return its guilty verdict, media outlets had their fingers poised over the ‘Go’ button on their background pieces.
However, it would appear some of them pressed that button too soon.
Backgrounders typically comprise material such as interviews with victims and their families, biographical information and other details which cannot not be published while the case is in court for fear of prejudicing the trial and falling foul of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.
In theory, they should not be published until the judge passes sentence, but in reality, once the jury has done its job, we tend to run these on the accepted basis of judges being ‘above prejudice’.
This does not normally raise many problems, unless, as with Bellfield, there are other charges to consider; in which case we should wait until the jury has returned verdicts in all the matters it is required to deal with.
Levi Bellfield was also charged with the attempted abduction of Rachel Cowles, then aged 11, on the day before Milly Dowler disappeared, and the jury was still deliberating in relation to this after returning its verdict in the Milly case.
However, some newspapers and others were already carrying detailed coverage of Levi Bellfield’s past – to the extent that the judge in the case decided that the defendant could no longer have a fair trial.
Mr Justice Wilkie dismissed the jury, citing adverse publicity. He has also referred the case to the Attorney General with a view to possible Contempt of Court action against some media organisations.
With the case already having prompted a wider debate on the issue of the adversarial system in the criminal courts and its effect on victims and witnesses, how likely is it that the Attorney General will pursue the media in relation to contempt?
Although relatively rare, given recent events it is more likely than it was a few months ago.
The current Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC, has been in the job for just over a year. From an early stage it became apparent that he was going to be more proactive in relation to media contempt than his recent predecessors.
‘Advisory Notices’ to the media about prejudicial reporting and the risk of contempt became more frequent, including during the Joanne Yeates case in Bristol last Christmas which followed an interview on BBC Radio 4′s The World at One, where he discussed the issue.
A few weeks ago he successfully brought a prosecution against the Sun and the Daily Mail in relation to prejudicial pictures of a defendant in a murder trial published on their websites while the case was in court. We are still awaiting sentencing.
Then, last month, Mr Grieve took the unusual step of applying to the High Court for permission to bring a Contempt of Court action against the Sun and the Daily Mirror for stories they ran during the Joanne Yeates murder investigation.
Unusual because the stories related to Ms Yeates’ landlord, Christopher Jefferies, who was under arrest at the time – but was later released without charge and therefore would not be facing a future trial which could be prejudiced.
However, the courts will be required to decide if the articles created ‘a substantial risk of serious prejudice’ to any future trial at the time of publication rather than with the benefit of hindsight.
It remains to be seen if the Attorney General will get involved in the Levi Bellfield case, but the indications are that he intends to get tough with the media in relation to contempt and it may be that some legal liberties that journalists have got used to taking in recent years may not be so lightly taken in future.
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