Media Reporting Restrictions in Criminal Cases: The Sun Fined for Breach

11th April 2013 Media Law
On Friday 5 April 2013, the Manchester Magistrates' Court fined the publisher of the Sun newspaper for a breach of the law covering court reporting.
 
JMW Solicitors has offices very close to the Manchester courts and so I attended the hearing to observe proceedings. This blog discusses the Sun case and takes a look at the relevant rules.
 
Reporting Restrictions
 
When a defendant is charged with an "indictable offence (which must be heard in the Crown Court) or an "either way offence (which can be heard in the Magistrates or Crown Court), Magistrates decide where any trial of the accused should take place. This is subject to a defendant's right to elect Crown Court trial in either way offences.
 
Section 52A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 imposes reporting restrictions for hearings where such offences are sent for trial from the Magistrates' Court to the Crown Court. It is illegal for the media to report matters relating to any such hearings other than the basic information permitted by the rules eg the name of the accused, the charges etc
 
The Partington Case
 
In February 2012, Andrew Partington, pleaded guilty at Manchester Crown Court to the manslaughter of a toddler, Jamie Heaton, and other charges of destroying property.
The court heard that Partington deliberately cut gas pipes in his home after an argument with his girlfriend. He subsequently blew up his house by lighting a cigarette. The explosion destroyed two neighbouring houses and damaged many others. Jamie Heaton was crushed to death. Partington suffered a broken neck and 40 degree burns.
 
Mr Justice Hamblen sentenced Partington to 10 years in prison.
 
The case understandably received extensive media coverage and attracted considerable public interest.
 
The Sun
 
The recent hearing at Manchester Magistrates' Court concerned charges brought against the Sun in relation to its reporting of Partington's initial appearance at Oldham Magistrates' Court.
 
The court was told that the Sun's (print and on-line) reports included information about the content of text messages sent by Partington which "formed the crux of the prosecution case. This breached the applicable reporting restrictions.
 
Counsel for the Sun told the court that the newspaper had immediately acknowledged its error, taken down the on-line version of the report and apologised for its mistake. Counsel explained that the mistake may have occurred because Partington had indicated at the initial hearing before Oldham Magistrates' Court that he was going to plead guilty and had made admissions to the police.
 
However, the Sun accepted that this was no guarantee that there would not be a trial before a jury and it was not justification for a breach of the reporting rules. The Sun pleaded guilty to one count in respect of the print edition. A second count in respect of the on-line article was dropped.
 
District Judge Taaffe said that the Sun's report clearly went beyond what was permitted.
 
The Judge said: "I recognise that the Press provide and perform a valuable function in our society. The facts surrounding the explosion in Oldham were both newsworthy and the subject of intense public interest.
 
However, the Judge added: "It is in circumstances such as these that it's absolutely necessary for the Press to behave responsibly and comply with the law.
 
The Judge described the Sun's report as being: "at best shoddy journalism and at worst an example of sensational reporting in a bid to generate short-term headlines and, no doubt, financial gain.
 
The Judge fined the publisher of the Sun, News Group Newspapers (NGN), £3,350 and ordered it to pay costs of £500 and a victim surcharge of £120.
 
Comment
 
The reporting restrictions at the heart of this case are obviously intended to ensure that juries reach decisions based on the evidence presented during a trial, and not based on media reports of preliminary hearings. The Judge noted that a failure to comply with the rules creates a risk of guilty people walking free or innocent people having their reputations tarnished.
 
Whilst the Judge acknowledged that many would consider the fine imposed to be insufficient, the significance of NGN admitting guilt in respect of a serious criminal offence is obvious.
 
The case brings to mind previous occasions when forerunners of the present reporting restrictions have been breached (the Sun has never breached the relevant rules before). For example, in 1996, the Gloucester Citizen was fined £4,500 for publishing a report of Fred West's first appearance at the Magistrates' Court. The Citizen's report included a statement that Fred West had confessed to police that he had killed one of his daughters. This obviously went far beyond the information permitted by the rules because it related to evidence in the case.
 
The Sun's case obviously provides a reminder to media organisations of the importance of complying with the applicable legal restrictions when reporting criminal cases.
 

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Nick McAleenan is a Partner located in Manchester in our Media & Reputation Management; Data Protection & Privacy department

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