A balance must be struck between the right to voice opinions and the need to ensure fairness in the justice system, writes the attorney-general.
A free press contributes greatly to safeguarding our hard-won freedoms. It can expose corruption and wrongdoing as well as holding governments to account. It must not, however, deny anybody a fair trial.
In April 2014, GQ magazine published an article regarding the ongoing phone-hacking trials and making a number of serious allegations about the involvement of senior members of News International.
The article was prominently trailed on the front cover of the edition as a ‘hacking exclusive’ by a prominent media commentator, and included the allegations that Andy Coulson and Rebekah Brooks, two of the defendants in the phone-hacking trial, tailored their evidence in order to ensure their boss, Rupert Murdoch, was never implicated in the alleged misconduct.
The publication of this article presented an interesting challenge for the Attorney General’s Office. For starters, the article was published at a particularly sensitive time during the trial as it coincided with the period when defendants were due to give their evidence before the jury. This meant that had any juror read the article, its content would have been fresh in their mind as they listened to the defendants’ evidence.
The article also made the clear implication that Rupert Murdoch knew about the phone hacking, but that this fact was being withheld from the jury because neither the prosecution nor the defence wished to rely on it. It was also suggested that Mr Murdoch should be put on trial ‘however remotely’.
It was for these reasons that my office asked the High Court to consider whether the article was a contempt of court. Contempt of court is where inappropriate reporting risks making a trial unfair and our argument is that the article created a substantial risk that anyone serving as a juror on the trial would reach their verdict not purely on the evidence they heard in court.
This week the High Court issued its judgment in this case (Attorney General v Conde Nast) and ruled that this was indeed a contempt of court. In reaching his conclusion, the lord chief justice said that he was ‘…left in little doubt that the effect of the article read as a whole was very seriously prejudicial’ and that the article ‘…was not mere comment or observation’. He could not accept the argument by GQ ‘…that the article was riddled with ambiguity and lacking in identifiable assertions or that it was difficult to search for its meaning’ in regards to the assertions it made about Brooks, Coulson and Murdoch.
I want to make it very clear that these actions are only ever used in order to protect the integrity of the judicial process and to remove the risk of jurors being influenced by external issues. My role involves both defending the freedom of the press as well as protecting the fair administration of justice.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between the right to voice opinions publicly with the equally important need to ensure fairness in the justice system. In this role I do not act as a member of the government but rather as ‘guardian of the public interest’.
While it is rare to bring proceedings against publishers, the GQ article went against the most fundamental principle of our criminal justice system; everyone is entitled to a fair trial. The publication of the article had the potential to interfere with the administration of justice and it was important that argument was heard before a court of law.
Jeremy Wright QC is the attorney general