The Spectator is to be prosecuted for breaching a court order which banned anyone from writing about the defendants in the Stephen Lawrence case lest they claim they could not receive a fair trial because the jury had been influenced.
This a fair argument in most cases; you don't need to be a lawyer to assent to the common sense of wanting an unbiased jury, without getting fetishist about whether the jury have ever heard of the defendant. However it was pointless in a case which already had billions of words devoted to it and had begun life as an attempt very publicly to force the CPS to bring a case, then gone on to a high-profile inquest, press campaign, an investigation by the Police Complaints Authority (as it was then) and a major enquiry, and then another investigation by the IPCC in 2007. The original trial collapsed; this meant some defendants could rely on the old double jeopardy rules to avoid a second trial, so hallowed law was changed to put them on trial again.
Whether they could ever have received a fair trial after the papers had tried the old "sue us for defamation if you aren't murderers" gambit is open to debate, and must raise issue of whether the inquest and three further reports were entirely without influence. If we refused to try everybody who was already known in the public press, then Jeffrey Archer would never have gone to gaol.
Besides, if this Spectator article could have prejudiced a jury, it would be against the Crown, not against the defendants. As an article it offered little further damage to those on trial; its ire was directed at the court system by pointing out what everyone already knew, i.e. that in the intervening years there were other prosecutions all fully covered in the press, by the BBC and by the law wire services. It wasn't secret.
Neil Acourt and David Norris were jailed for racially abusing a police officer, Detective
Constable Gareth Reid, in 2001. They were convicted and appealed on the grounds that they hadn't been able to receive a fair trial due to being repeatedly condemned in the papers since 1993.
No, said Lord Justice Mantell, sitting with Mr Justice Wright and Mrs Justice Rafferty, just because you've been criticised in the press is no reason refuse to bring a trial.
However, they slightly reduced their sentences which they felt to be out of line with other examples of similar offences, which caused Sergeant Ravi Chand of the National Black Police Association to complain that judges didn't understand how serious this was. In other words, their original sentence was tainted by being an interim attempt to payback people who were felt to have got away with murder. The Sun was explicit in this "Lawrence thugs jailed at last" it said, glad that the CPS had finally got a conviction to stick against them.
So one of the defendants in the 2012 murder trial, David Norris, had already had the issue of prejudice against him answered in the courts. On the day that the Spectator was supposed to have distorted the very fabric of the space-time continuum, that information was available all over everywhere, including the BBC, the Daily Mail, and a solicitor's news service which was open to the public at that point and has since gone behind a paywall.
Later, the officer who alleged racial abuse by Acourt and Norris, DC Gareth Reid, alleged that he had been the subject of racial discrimination, losing an employment case against the Metropolitan Police in 2010. He had brought previous discrimination cases in 1997 and 2001.
Eventually, convictions for murder were brought in. The evidence looked poor but these are not the defendants one goes to the barricades for, and they have been convicted by a jury of their peers. Possibly the grounds for appeal will mention The Spectator and will make as much as they can of the fact that if it was worth prosecuting the publication, that must mean it had some influence. So the defence must be pleased that they've been handed an extra argument to use by the legal machine which was so keen to see the clients jailed.
The Lawrence case has always been choked with people trying to use the murder of one young man as proof of racism in the police. Neither the collapsed trial, the inquest or the PCA investigation delivered the conclusions which the press and campaigners wanted. Eventually, the Macpherson report got us decades of political correctness and which resulted in the police being too scared to take on child abusers who instantly play the race card.
This time we are going to get the show-trial of a publication because the courts think this will demonstrate who's in charge and stop the pesky press reporting things or even mentioning what they already reported a decade earlier. Shush, someone in the jury might have heard of Stephen Lawrence.
It won't be much of a show; editor Fraser Nelson has already said they will not contest the case and will just pay the fine, which is a wise call. But note, the original piece wasn't about the guilt or innocence of the defendants; it was criticising the justice system. However, Mr Justice Treacy thought the jury weren't influenced by two decades of media coverage and they said they hadn't read the Spectator, and he met them so he should know.
Here's a useful timeline to help keep track of all the things other than a couple of lousy paras in a patrician house-mag, which might have come to the attention of anybody conscious since 1993.
Stephen Lawrence has been held up as a martyr for 20 years, and so he
is; but if there is one thing any averagely-educated person can see it
is that martyrdom can swing round unpredictably. Keep going with the
prosecutions of the messengers and the political correctness, and we
yet might see scumbag David Norris carried out of court, re-sanctified
and wearing the white robes of a poor misused victim of the justice