Jonathan Rayner thinks it’s time to update contempt of court laws in the digital age, even if he can’t sympathise with Rebekah Brooks.
She was a damsel in distress, isolated, beset by enemies, more innocent than the driven snow, and yet facing a possible jail sentence.
It is hard not to feel an outpouring of sympathy for ‘media maelstrom’ victim Rebekah Brooks, who found herself the ‘lightning rod’ for criticism of the tabloid press after a newspaper she had edited was found to have hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone.
Even before being arrested and charged, Brooks had become a ‘figure of hate’, maligned by an irresponsible press – and by uncontrolled and uncontrollable tweeters.
What chance did this ‘successful, influential, red-haired woman’ have in a court of law when she had already been publicly declared guilty? Surely this flies in the face of justice and the right to a fair trial?
The lawyer painting Brooks as someone more sinned against than sinning was Angus McBride, the Kingsley Napley partner who acted for her in the so-called trial of the century.
The jury, of course, acquitted Brooks of all charges related to phone hacking. McBride, speaking at an event called Everyone loves a scandal… but what if it’s about you?, said: ‘The jury did listen. The system works… but I still believe there was a real risk of a miscarriage of justice here… because of the uncontrolled prejudice surrounding the trial.’
He added that the Contempt of Court Act 1981 is no longer fit for purpose.
Hear, hear! And yet I still don’t feel inspired to man the barricades for poor mistreated Ms Brooks. Why are there no tears pricking my eyeballs?
By way of explanation for my apparent callousness, let’s take the case of another woman journalist who fared much worse in the courts. Carina Trimingham came to public notice as the mistress of the then energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne. The romance was exceptional in that Trimingham was a lesbian who had deserted her female lover in favour of the soon to be imprisoned, male Lib Dem minister.
The Daily Mail, in particular, published many stories critical of Trimingham, prompting her to sue for defamation and invasion of privacy. Mr Justice Tugendhat, in his May 2012 High Court judgment, dismissed her claims.
Tugendhat said: ‘(Trimingham) was a journalist who had herself disclosed information about other people for publication in the newspapers and so was a person who ought not reasonably to be expected to be distressed when such information was published about herself.’
How is that relevant to Brooks? It was the judge’s implication that Trimingham, who had lived by the sword, should not complain if she died by the sword.
Applying the maxim to Brooks, the papers that she edited have been guilty of contempt of court and libel numerous times, in the process fuelling prejudice against the innocent and against the accused in the dock – which is precisely what her lawyer complained had been allowed to colour the case against her.
The examples are legion. An innocent man was outed as a paedophile, a former EastEnders star was wrongly branded a woman-beater, former footballer Paul Gascoigne was falsely accused of groping a woman, comedian Russell Brand won damages after the Sun claimed (incorrectly) he was having an affair behind his partner’s back.
Other successful claimants against the Sun include musician Elton John, celebrity Sharon Osbourne, X Factor judge Louis Walsh, Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz and a previously unknown airport security officer.
It’s how tabloids boost circulation and the fines they occasionally pay are part of the cost of doing business.
I don’t for a moment doubt that Angus McBride was sincere in his sympathy for Brooks. And anyway, even journalists deserve a fair trial. I just can’t buy into the idea of Brooks as victim, that’s all.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer