Newspapers guilty of contempt

9 June 2013

Levi Bellfield was convicted on the 23rd June 2011 of the murder of Miss Dowler.  However, the jury had not yet come to a decision on a separate attempted abduction charge.  However, due to the material published by the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror, following the murder verdict, the trial Judge agreed with submissions that the jury had to be discharged as the coverage published by the Mail and Mirror was considered to be prejudicial.

In a judgment handed down at the High Court last Wednesday, the Judges stated that the coverage in the two newspapers did 'significantly exacerbate' the risk of serious prejudice to the high profile jury trial.

The offending articles covered background information about Mr Bellfield, which the High Court ruled went 'far beyond' what the jury had been told in Court.

The contempt proceedings were brought by the Attorney General and the Judges were told of the stories that had been published by those two newspapers and the fact they were part of what was described as an 'avalanche' of adverse publicity that followed the jury's verdict of guilty.  The outstanding attempted abduction charge related to an allegation that Mr Bellfield had attempted to abduct an 11 year old by the name of Rachel Cowles the day prior to taking Miss Dowler in 2002.

The newspapers argued that the articles they published did not create a substantial risk of serious prejudice, but having ruled against them in favour of the Attorney General, the Court would seem to have disagreed.

The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve said "it is unfortunate that the deluge of media coverage following the Millie Dowler verdict, not only by these papers but also other media outlets, lead to the Judge discharging the jury before they had completed their deliberations on a charge of attempted kidnap, ultimately depriving Rachel Cowles of a verdict in her case. This prosecution is a reminder to the press that whilst the jury is still to reach a verdict on all counts of the Indictment, the Contempt of Court Act applies".

Despite the ruling of the Court, they have yet to reach a decision as to the fines to be imposed and it is understood that this is likely to be decided at a hearing in October 2012.

A spokesman for the Mirror said that they were surprised at the Court's decision and that they would be giving careful consideration to the question of an appeal.  A spokesman for the Mail stated that they were disappointed by the decision and again indicated they will be considering whether to appeal.