The government has abandoned plans to give the attorney general power to order media organisations to take down stories from online media archives that may prejudice criminal trials.
In a written statement yesterday, attorney general Dominic Grieve QC said the government had listened to the ‘disquiet’ voiced by the media, in particular by the Society of Editors, over the plans.
The proposals were contained in sections 51 and 52 of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which received its second reading in the House of Lords yesterday. They would have allowed the attorney general power to order UK newspapers and other publishers to remove from their websites articles that create a risk of contempt of court were jurors to carry out online research about the trial and those involved in it.
If such a demand were not adhered to, editors could have been fined or imprisoned for contempt of court.
The proposal stemmed from a Law Commission report that revealed media concern over vulnerability to proceedings for contempt in relation to online archive material.
The report suggested that the attorney general should be responsible for alerting publishers to the presence of material that was potentially prejudicial once proceedings were active. Until such a notice was served, a publisher would have a defence to contempt proceedings.
Grieve said: ‘The proposal was intended to provide the media with a measure of protection and reassurance, while at the same time enabling the integrity of proceedings to be safeguarded.’
He said the government believed the proposal ‘struck the right balance between the right to a fair trial and the freedom of the press’. However, while the measures were intended to ‘assist and protect’ the media, they had been criticised for giving the attorney general too much power, producing a ‘chilling effect’ on press freedom.
Grieve said the government has ‘considered these concerns very carefully’, adding: ‘While the government considers that the notice provision would be an improvement for the media, courts and attorneys-general alike, it is satisfied that the existing law will continue to provide satisfactory protection to the integrity of legal proceedings.
‘On this basis, the government has decided not to pursue this measure or the related clause on rights of appeal,’ said Grieve.
The government will table amendments to omit the clauses ‘at the first opportunity’.
The same bill makes it an offence for jurors to carry out research, punishable with up to two years in jail.