A contempt of court warning issued by the attorney general over Russell Brand coverage has been described as “worrying” and “unnecessary” by the Society of Editors.
Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, it is illegal for newspapers to publish anything that could prejudice a criminal trial once a suspect has been arrested or a warrant issued.
But Victoria Prentis KC, the attorney general, has sparked a press freedom row after warning editors that coverage about Brand “may amount to contempt”, even though no arrests have taken place.
Speaking to The Telegraph, Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said: “At the moment there are no active proceedings when there have been no arrests – so it is a very unusual warning.
“I’d say it is worrying and also unnecessary.”
Ms Alford also said any “attempt to curtail the work” of newspapers was “misguided”. She said journalists were “well versed” in contempt of court laws.
She added: “There are many convictions which would not have been achieved had it not been for news organisations breaking stories on alleged wrongdoing.”
Coverage being ‘monitored’
Earlier this month, a joint investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches and The Sunday Times disclosed that four women accused Brand of sexual assault between 2006 and 2013.
The comedian has denied all wrongdoing and insists that all of his sexual encounters have been consensual.
On Monday, the Metropolitan Police confirmed it was investigating a number of allegations of sexual offences following the documentary’s broadcast.
The force also confirmed that no arrests had been made.
A media advisory notice issued by the office of Ms Prentis on Friday, said it was “monitoring” the coverage of allegations made against Brand.
It read: “The attorney general, the Rt Hon Victoria Prentis KC MP, wishes to amplify the importance of not publishing any material where there is a risk that it could prejudice any potential criminal investigation or prosecutions.
“Publishing this material could amount to contempt of court.”
David Banks, a media law consultant, compared the warning to an older version of the law, before the Contempt of Court Act was updated in 1981.
Mr Banks said: “It is worrying that this attorney general warning appears to go back to a definition of contempt which would be far more of an imposition on our freedom of speech.”
“I expect that newspapers and their lawyers will be treating this advice with a pinch of salt.”
The attorney general has previously issued warnings when it has deemed press coverage or social media comments to be potentially prejudicial.
In 2020, the office monitored coverage of a terror attack in a Reading park and warned against the publication of anything that “asserts or assumes the guilt” of arrested suspects.
A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said: “We are committed to the principles of open justice and press freedom.
“However, given the extended period and nature of the coverage of these allegations, the media advisory was issued to remind journalists to exercise caution as common law contempt considerations apply, despite proceedings not currently being ‘active’.”