UK Judge Rules Even Archived News Articles Can Be In Contempt Of Court
from the unintended-consequences dept
Last week, the British policeman Simon Harwood was acquitted of killing a man during the 2009 G20 protests in London — a controversial verdict given the video footage of the incident. In order not to prejudice their views, the jury was not informed that Harwood had been investigated a number of times previously for alleged violence and misconduct.
As a result of that requirement to withhold information about the earlier allegations, Associated Newspapers, which owns the Daily Mail, was found by a British judge to be in breach of the strict liability rule of the UK’s Contempt of Court Act because of two stories about Harwood that it continued to hold in its archive, as this Press Gazette post explains:
Both articles were published in 2010, and had been available on the Mail Online archive since then, but only if a would-be reader actually searched for them, either on the website itself, or via a search engine.
The judge nonetheless held that the Mail Online was in contempt of court because of his interpretation of a key section in the relevant legislation:
Mr Justice Fulford held that the phrase “at the time of the publication” actually “encompasses the entire period during which the material is available on the website from the moment of its first appearance through to when it was withdrawn”.
The only way to avoid this problem would be for online news archives to remove articles from their holdings in advance of future court cases. But it’s hard to see how this can possibly work when applied to every case across the UK. Either the search for relevant materials will be quick and superficial, and therefore run the risk of missing articles; or it will be so slow and laborious as to render it impractical. Some owners of news archives may decide it’s not worth it, and simply withdraw access altogether; that would be a highly regrettable consequence of this ruling, and a real loss for everyone.