In the Media

It?s a media free-for-all: that?s why I prosecute for contempt

PUBLISHED December 8, 2011

Twitter and the internet are new versions of an old problem, Dominic Grieve tells Frances Gibb

Dominic Grieve, QC, insists that it is ?certainly not my intention to be fearsome?. But there is no escaping that as Attorney-General he has built a reputation for being particularly proactive in prosecuting for contempt of court.

One previous Attorney, Lord Goldsmith, QC, brought two cases against the media in his six years, while Baroness Scotland of Asthal, brought just one in her three years.

By contrast, in 18 months Grieve has prosecuted the Daily Mail andThe Sun, which were fined over photographs and website coverage of a murder trial; the Daily Mirror and The Sun have been fined over their coverage of the arrest by police investigating the murder of Joanna Yeates of the landlord Christopher Jefferies. He was innocent.

Then, last month, Grieve announced action against the Mirror andMail over coverage of Levi Bellfield?s conviction for the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler; against Sky News over its coverage on the day of Paul and Rachael Chandler?s release by Somali pirates; and has referred a Spectator article about the Stephen Lawrence murder trial.

Grieve insists that he is ?simply responding to those cases brought to my attention?. And perhaps, he suggests, the press is pushing the boundaries more than it did. ?You can say I?m being more proactive but an alternative is that more examples are being brought to the attention of this office. If a complaint is made, we will investigate it.?

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 was intended to be a liberalising measure and provide greater latitude for freedom of expression, constrained by ?common sense?. But, he adds, ?at some point the media seems to have lost sight of commonsense.

?The only way that we are going to establish the boundaries are by the press exercising self-restraint ... or by the press transgressing the boundaries and being brought back into line by my taking action.?

One reason for this new ?disinhibition? are changes that allow a defendant?s bad character to be introduced at trial. ?Sometimes I get the impression that there is a sort of free-for-all atmosphere, that it doesn?t matter what you say because it will all come out in the trial anyway. That does concern me.?

But he insists that the Act is not unfit for purpose or in need of an overhaul, although there may be a need for ?wider? legislation to cope with problems brought by the internet. But for now, the problems are much as have always existed about enforcing orders overseas. ?The internet ... does not change the ground rules laid down by the Contempt of Court Act 1981.?

Nor has Twitter necessarily created new difficulties or allowed people to get away with breaking court orders. ?Ultimately, no one thought that the contempt of court rules, even before 1981, would prevent dinner party tittle-tattle and nor should we necessarily get too exercised about that.? If, though, comments went ?viral? and were ?reached by thousands or millions of people accessing a particular site or blog then, of course, we are going to be exercised about it?.

It is not just journalists who may be targeted. Grieve has launched contempt proceedings against a juror, a university lecturer from Luton, Theodora Dallas, over internet research. He is determined, he says, to ?reinforce? the message put out by judges that use of the internet in trials for researching cases will ?not be tolerated?.

But, ever cautious, he insists: ?We must keep this in perspective. Judges have been giving directions to jurors for a long time not to discuss cases outside the jury room. Long before the internet, some failed in their duty occasionally and were punished for it.?

As Attorney he has adopted a lowish profile, reverting to the office?s traditional role with a focus on being chief legal adviser to the Government. Other AGs saw the job as being a key criminal justice player, often taking a lead on policy. Grieve prefers to defer to the home or justice secretary, although he is a key link as the minister overseeing the Crown Prosecution Service.

This semi-detachment from mainstream government fits. Grieve, whose mother was half-French and who is fluent himself, was a popular appointment across the profession and political parties because of his nuanced take on human rights. But that put him at odds with some on the Tory Right. He never favoured scrapping the European Convention but has ?no difficulty? with a new UK Bill of Rights consistent with our convention rights.

He has also raised concerns about legal aid cuts and the impact on women, children and victims of domestic abuse ? which, with other representations, has had some impact because the timetable is now delayed.

Until the coalition and the arrival of Kenneth Clarke as Justice Secretary, Grieve (whose father, Percy, was also a QC MP) had hoped to get that portfolio. But if he was briefly disappointed, he is now delighted ? and the post better suits his lawyerly style. ?My wife [the barrister Caroline Hutton] made me promise to give it up if I was bored. There?s no question of that.?