The U.K. government's chief legal officer has been accused of trying to “curb investigative journalism” after a heavy-handed warning to newspaper editors to tread carefully in their coverage of sexual abuse and rape allegations against the comedian Russell Brand.
In contrast to the anything-goes world of U.S. journalism, where freedom of the press and free speech itself are constitutionally protected, British reporters have long had to contend with strict contempt of court laws designed to prevent news coverage prejudicing free trials.
But Attorney-General Victoria Prentis was accused of “shocking overreach” after sending out a Media Advisory Notice on Friday night warning editors that their coverage of the Brand allegations was being scrutinized.
“The Attorney General, the Rt Hon Victoria Prentis KC MP, wishes to amplify the importance of not publishing any material where there is a risk that it could prejudice any potential criminal investigation or prosecutions,” the notice said.
“Publishing this material could amount to contempt of court.”
What Prentis, the Tory MP for Banbury in Oxfordshire, omitted to mention was that none of the allegations against Brand—which include allegations of sexual assault from at least four women—would have come to light without the work of journalists on Channel 4’s Dispatches and The Times and Sunday Times, Rupert Murdoch's higher-brow U.K. newspapers.
More to the point, wrote veteran Times crime reporter Sean O’Neill in an op-ed column in the paper on Monday, the contempt of court rules cited by Prentis do not yet apply in the Brand case.
“Anyone with even the sketchiest knowledge of how the media works surely knows that every single word of reporting on Brand has been rigorously scrutinised before publication. And one of the many things looked at is whether there is a contempt issue,” O’Neill wrote.
“As a journalist for more than 35 years, I have always understood that contempt of court “bites” when proceedings are active (ie there has been a summons, an arrest or a charge). There have been no arrests in this case. No one has been interviewed by detectives. There are no active proceedings that can be prejudiced. The attorney-general is either poorly informed about the law of contempt or has taken it upon herself to issue a thinly veiled threat intended to have a chilling effect on reporting of the Brand allegations.”
O’Neill points out that it was the work of the Times, Sunday Times, and Channel 4 journalists that brought the Brand story into the open in the first place and forced the police to open an investigation. He added: “Is the government telling reporters to stop interviewing women who have courageously come forward, stop pursuing legitimate and important public interest journalism? Meanwhile, Brand is free to pontificate on social media channels.”
The issue at stake for reporters on what was once known as Fleet Street goes far beyond coverage of the allegations against Russell Brand. In the glory days of the U.K. press, pre-internet, local newspapers would have had reporters in virtually every courtroom to provide a written record for the community of the trials therein. That was their main job.
Nowadays, with the exception of more high-profile criminal cases, reporters have to insist or negotiate access to criminal trials; a veil of secrecy has descended as judges come down on the side of “privacy” over press freedom and oligarchs throw their cash around to threaten editors with potentially ruinous criminal trials.
As Times writer O’Neill put it: “The freedom to report on crime and policing is under sustained attack. The relentless advance of judge-made privacy law makes it legally perilous to identify suspects who are under investigation or arrest. The Law Commission is proposing to ban reporters from the trials of alleged sex offenders. Secret arrests? Secret trials? And now a government threat to curb investigative journalism.”