GQ magazine publisher in contempt of court over ‘seriously prejudicial’ article on phone-hacking trial

England and Wales High Court
England and Wales High Court

The publisher of GQ magazine has been found in contempt of court over a “seriously prejudicial” article on the phone-hacking trial.

The High Court in London ruled that the article had created a “substantial risk” the trial of former News of the World (NoW) editor Rebekah Brooks, former deputy editor and then editor Andy Coulson and others “would be seriously impeded or prejudiced”.

The court heard a GQ article, published by Conde Naste Publications Ltd, could have suggested to jurors that NoW’s owners News International Ltddirected or knew about hacking.

Mr Coulson was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment after being found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones, while Mrs Brooks was acquitted of all charges.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, sitting with Mrs Justice Nicola Davis, heard that the GQ article was written by Michael Wolff.

The trial, which also involved Clive Goodman, Mrs Brooks’ personal assistant Cheryl Carter Mrs Brooks’ husband, had been running for more than three months when the article appeared in the men’s magazine’s April 2014 issue, which was in circulation during March.

It was contended on behalf of the Attorney General that the article, published as it was at the point in time during which the defence case was being presented to the jury, implied that Mr Rupert Murdoch knew about the phone hacking, but that his role was being withheld from the jury as this suited both the prosecution and the defence.

Condé Nast submitted that there was a “”vast amount of material that implied the involvement of Rupert Murdoch in phone hacking or its cover up, but the judges noted that that material was published “a significant period of time before the trial”.

“In my view, the implication of Mr Wolff’s article published during the trial was obvious. It clearly suggested that Mr Rupert Murdoch was a participant in the phone hacking; that for their different reasons, the prosecution and the defence did not want to make this case. That was a statement plainly prejudicial to the fair trial of the case. Furthermore, by implying that Mr Murdoch knew, it would be more difficult for those in the position of Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson to contend that their knowledge was less than that of Mr Rupert Murdoch,” Lord Thomas said.

It was also contended on behalf of the Attorney General that the article implied that, as Mr Murdoch was paying the defence costs, this “served his agenda of protecting his interests to the detriment of the public good”.

Condé Nast pointed to numerous articles published in 2011-2012 where it had been made public that News International Ltd was paying for the defence of some of the defendants, but again these were “long before” the trial.

Lord Thomas said the “clear implication” of the relevant passages in the article was that the funding was for “a base motive” and that was “highly prejudicial”.

The Attorney General further contended that the article implied that Mr Coulson “knew all about phone hacking and was simply carrying out Mr Rupert Murdoch’s orders by hacking phones and then concealing the truth”.

Condé Nast argued that this was no more than a “musing” on the position of a defendant, but the judges ruled that it was “seriously prejudicial”.

Finally, it was contended that the article implied Mrs Brooks had simply followed Mr Murdoch’s orders and someone who would run her defence in such a way that she would benefit in the future, as she had already “banked a settlement of a reported £10.8m from Rupert Murdoch on her contract with News International”.

It was submitted on behalf of Condé Nast that the fact of the severance payment had been placed in the public domain in a number of articles, but the judges observed that the gravamen of the passage was the implication that Mrs Brooks was a “disreputable woman” who would do whatever was required by Mr Murdoch.

“It was an improper attack on a defendant in the course of her trial and plainly seriously prejudicial”, Lord Thomas said.

The judges were left in “little doubt that the effect of the article read as a whole was very seriously prejudicial”.

In a written judgment, the Lord Chief Justice said: “I cannot accept the submission advanced by Condé Nast that the article was riddled with ambiguity and lacking in identifiable assertions or that it was difficult to search for its meaning. On the contrary, it plainly implied that Mr Rupert Murdoch was a participant in the phone hacking, that the defendants must have been aware of the phone hacking, that the defence was being funded by him and conducted on the defendants’ instructions so as to protect his interests, but in a way that might also secure their acquittal. It was not mere comment or observation, but an article that made the clear implications about Mr Rupert Murdoch, Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson I have set out.

“Prior to the Contempt of Court Act 1981, publication of an article that pre-judged the outcome would generally have been treated as a contempt. The provisions of s.2(2) (as developed in the case law) provide for a step by step analysis which protects the freedom of the press and balances the public interest in ensuring a fair criminal trial.

“On that analysis, it is in my view clear that the article published in the April 2014 issue of GQ created a substantial risk that the course of justice in the trial of R v Edmondson and others would be seriously prejudiced or impeded. Condé Nast therefore breached the strict liability rule and was therefore in contempt of court.”

Lord Thomas added that a hearing would be held at a future date to decide on the penalty that should be imposed, which could include a potentially “unlimited” fine.

© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2021