Milly Dowler trial - papers guilty of contempt

Posted: 18th July 2012

Two national newspapers have been found guilty of contempt of court over articles published after a killer’s conviction for the abduction and murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The ruling against the publishers of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror was made by two judges at the High Court in a case brought by the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC against Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, and MGN, publisher of the Daily Mirror.

Both papers, who contested the action, had been accused of publishing ‘seriously prejudicial’ articles as part of an ‘avalanche’ of adverse publicity which followed a guilty verdict against Levi Bellfield. The articles appeared whilst jurors were still deliberating another charge against Bellfield and, as a result of the ‘totality’ of the publicity, the Old Bailey jury was discharged from returning a verdict on that count.

Bellfield, who was previously convicted in 2008 of the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, was found guilty on June 23 last year of Milly Dowler’s murder.

The newspaper publishers argued that the articles would not have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice. But the President of the Queen’s Bench Division, Sir John Thomas, and Mr Justice Tugendhat disagreed.

In his ruling, Sir John Thomas said that the material published ‘went way beyond what the jury had been told about Bellfield, murderer though they knew him to be and had again found him to be’. He added: ‘There was a real risk that the jury would have thought that the additional material was relevant to the remaining count where he was charged with attempting to abduct a schoolgirl.’

Finding both newspaper groups in contempt of court, the judge concluded: ‘I am sure that each publication did create a substantial risk of serious prejudice. The allegations of Bellfield’s sexual interest in, and depraved conduct towards, young girls were highly prejudicial to the count that the jury were then still considering. I have little doubt that, if the jury had not been discharged, there would have been a seriously arguable point that the conviction was unsafe.’

The Attorney General said after the decision: ‘This case shows why the media must comply with the Contempt of Court Act.nIt is unfortunate that the deluge of media coverage following the Milly Dowler verdict, not only by these papers but also other media outlets, led to the judge discharging the jury before they had completed their deliberations on a charge of attempted kidnap, ultimately depriving Rachel Cowles of a verdict in her case.

‘This prosecution is a reminder to the press that whilst the jury is still to reach a verdict on all counts of the indictment the Contempt of Court Act applies. The question of penalty is now for the court to consider.’