UK

Spectator fined after admitting Stephen Lawrence breach

  • 7 June 2012
  • From the section UK
Rod Liddle
Image caption Rod Liddle was not liable for prosecution but the publisher of the Spectator magazine was

The Spectator has been ordered to pay £5,625 after admitting an article on the trial of Stephen Lawrence's killers breached a court order.

Rod Liddle's article claimed the two defendants would not get a fair trial.

The article appeared after the trial had begun and when judges had already banned reports that could influence the jury's view of the defendants.

The magazine's lawyer apologised unreservedly for its "bitterly regrettable" failure to make checks.

Editor Fraser Nelson had previously said the magazine would not contest the prosecution.

The Crown told Westminster Magistrates' Court that Mr Liddle's article had directly contravened the court order and had potential for devastating consequences for the trial.

'Sad sequence' of events

For the Spectator, lawyer Brian Spiro apologised unreservedly to the Lawrence family and those involved with the case for what he said had been a "sad sequence of events" that led to the article being published.

Mr Spiro said Mr Liddle had been unaware of the court order and that Mr Nelson and the magazine's senior lawyer had both been away when article was submitted.

The article should have been checked by three senior members of staff and lawyers but had been checked by a junior lawyer, he said.

Mr Spiro said Mr Nelson later ordered the Spectator edition containing the article be taken off the shelves and the article removed from the internet.

District Judge Howard Riddle said for a brief period the trial process had been put in jeopardy and that the prospect of collapse must have been "agonising" for the Lawrences.

He said he accepted that the Spectator had not intended to publish prejudicial material but that Mr Liddle had been "at least aware" of the possibility of legal action.

The journalist had set down "something of a challenge" to the trial judge in his article, Judge Riddle said.

Had the trial been undermined, he said, the Spectator would have faced more serious charges.

"Fortunately it is clear that the jury did not read the article and the trial was able to come to a fair conclusion," he said.

Judge Riddle imposed a fine of £3,000 on the Spectator's publisher and told it to pay a further £2,000 in compensation for the Lawrence family and £625 court costs.

'Singularly perverse'

Gary Dobson and David Norris were convicted of Stephen Lawrence's murder earlier this year after a complex trial relating to fragments of DNA evidence.

Before the trial began, senior judges imposed a ban on any media reports referring to allegations that either of the defendants were violent or racist.

This kind of reporting restriction is a standard procedure used in many trials to ensure the jury is not influenced by the media.

In the Spectator article, Mr Liddle wrote that Dobson and Norris had already been presented as violent racists and any judge who took action against him for saying so was "singularly perverse".

Mr Justice Treacy, the trial judge, ordered the jury not to read the article and referred the matter to the attorney general for possible contempt of court.

Under the law, Mr Liddle was not liable for prosecution but the magazine's publisher was.

It was not prosecuted for contempt of court, but for breaching a court order which imposed reporting restrictions on the trial.

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