This evening the Attorney General Dominic Grieve has been speaking at City University on the subject “Contempt – a balancing act”.
Here’s the draft text of his speech – it differed only slightly in delivery. In the document viewer below you’ll find my note of the most important additions and changed he made, and some of my comments on specific passages.
The Attorney explained that he thinks there’s an increasing tendency for the press to test the boundaries of what’s acceptable – and he identifies the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which made new statutory provision for the admission of bad character evidence in criminal courts, as possibly having influenced media attitudes. He said in answer to a question after his speech that he believes
the Contempt of Court Act is “fit for purpose”
but he made it clear in the speech itself that he’s been concerned to see
some clarity .. reintroduced
and listed the contempt cases he’s already taken – against the Daily Mail and the Sun, against the Mirror and the Sun again in the case of Christopher Jefferies and the “Facebook juror” case.
The Attorney said he’s aware that many in the press would welcome more “advisory notices” from him – warnings when reporting is straying into contempt territory – and, while being clear that he’s not not the media’s lawyer, he said he’s considering at the moment how he can assist with this. An interesting insight, that, into a media that clearly would welcome positive regulation more than you’d think from some public reactions to the Leveson inquiry.
He made a strong moral appeal to the media, as well as a legal one -
there is a moral imperative in all of this – the need to observe common decency when reporting
As well as signalling his wish to engage positively with the media, Grieve gave a number of warnings.
First he made it clear a number of times that the proceedings are active, for contempt purposes, from the point of arrest, before charge. He’s clearly concerned about press behaviour during this period especially.
Second, he gave a more gentle warning that he’s aware of the potential for blogs to go viral – and that they, too, can breach the law on contempt. More than once he emphasised that the internet is not a law-free zone, and in answer to a question he made clear that
bloggers are not immune from the law.
In addition, though, in a clear reference to John Hemming MP (though without naming him) the Attorney made clear his view that it serves Parliament ill
if court orders are openly flouted by MPs “for no good reason”
and he reminded his audience that MPs who do not respect the principle of “comity” between Parliament and the courts can be punished – by Parliament itself.
An interesting speech, this, setting Grieve’s stall out clearly as an Attorney who knows he can’t stop every risk of prejudice to trials in the multinational, new media age, but who’s clearly determined to do what he can.