Global Freedom of Expression

United Kingdom v. Condé Nast Publications

Closed Mixed Outcome

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    November 18, 2015
  • Outcome
    Criminal Sanctions, Other
  • Case Number
    [2015] EWHC 3322
  • Region & Country
    United Kingdom, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Criminal Law
  • Themes
    Protection of Sources
  • Tags
    Public Interest, Freedom of press, Journalism, Judiciary (protection of) / Contempt of Court

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

In April 2014, Condé Nast company published an issue of GQ magazine, featuring the trial proceedings of the phone hacking allegations against the News of the World between 2013 to 2014. In March 2015, the U.K. Attorney General brought an action against the company under Section 2(2) of the Contempt of Court Act of 1981, alleging that the publication created a substantial risk of impeding or prejudicing the course of justice.

After taking into account the scope and timing of the publication, and its accessibility to the members of the jury, the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court found Condé Nast in contempt of court, reasoning that the published article created a substantial risk that the course of justice in the trial proceedings would be seriously prejudiced or impeded.

 


Facts

Condé Nast Publications issued its April 2014 edition of GQ magazine that featured the trial proceedings against the editors and private investigators of the News of World on charges of unlawfully intercepting mobile phone messages. The front cover of the magazine vividly featured an article titled “Hacking Exclusive! Michael Wolff at the Trial of the Century.” New York-based journalist Michael Wolff wrote the article after observing the trial in London. Among other factual information, the article suggested the involvement of business magnate Rupert Murdoch in phone hacking or its cover up. It also alleged that Murdoch was paying the cost of the defense.

Upon the publication of the magazine, the presiding judge in the phone hacking trial stated the article amounted to a prima facie contempt of the court. In March 2015, the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court granted permission for the U.K. Attorney General in bringing an action against Condé Nast under Section 2(2) of the Contempt of Court Act of 1981, which prohibits “a publication which creates a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.”


Decision Overview

Justice Nicola Davies rendered the judgment.

The main issue before the court was whether the article published in the April 2014 issue of GQ magazine created a substantial risk that the course of justice in the trial would be seriously prejudiced or impeded.

The court first interpreted the meaning of “substantial risk” within Section 2(2) of the Contempt of Court Act, holding that the term “mean[s] a risk which is more than remote or not merely minimal and that it must be judged at the time of publication.” [para. 7] It added that in considering the application of Section 2(2), “the question is whether the publication would have given rise to a seriously arguable ground of appeal if the trial had been allowed to continue and proceeded to conviction.” [para. 7]

The court then proceeded with assessing the possible risks associated with the published article. It first looked at the extent of the publication and whether there was a substantial risk of the publication coming to the attention of the jurors. While the article was not published online, the court found that magazine’s front cover “vividly” featuring the article would “have drawn the attention of anyone involved in or knowing of the trial,” including the members of the jury and their relatives.

Next, the court turned to the content of the article. The article was alleged to be potentially prejudicial to the jury in several ways, but the court focused on main factual allegations contained in the article. First, the piece implied that Rupert Murdoch had knowledge of the phone hacking, but his role was being withheld from the jury because it suited both the prosecution and the defense team. Second, that Murdoch was paying the cost of the defense in an attempt to protect his own interests. Third, a former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, knew about the phone hacking and was carrying Murdoch’s orders by intercepting phone conversations and concealing the truth. The court found these statements “plainly prejudicial” to the fair trial of the case.

Condé Nast conteded that there was already a pre-trial publicity and that the factual information contained in its published article was in any event available online by other news media outlets. The court held that even if other press reports were readily providing similar information, the article in GQ magazine “could have afforded a further and additional risk of prejudice.” [para.30]  It found it immaterial that the information could have been available online because “any research by jurors on the internet would have been in direct breach of the judge’s directions as significant publicity had been given to the consequences of internet research.” [para. 30] The court also took into account the timing of the publication, noting that it was published at the same time when the defense team was presenting its evidence.

Lastly, the court highlighted that the elements of Section 2(2) of the Contempt of Court Act protects “the freedom of the press and balances the public interest in ensuring a fair criminal trial.” [para. 43]

Based on the foregoing analysis, the Court found Condé Nast Publications strictly liable for breach of Section 2(2) of the Contempt of Court Act for publishing the article capable of prejudicing or impeding the course of justice in the phone hacking trial against the News of the World. 

 


Decision Direction

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Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Mixed Outcome

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.K., Attorney General v Birmingham Post and Mail [1999] 1 WLR 361
  • U.K., A-G v Independent Television News [1995] 2 All ER 370
  • U.K., Contempt of Court Act 1981
  • U.K., A-G v MGN [2011] EWHC 2074 (Admin)
  • U.K., A-G v Dallas [2012] EWHC 156 (Admin)
  • U.K., A-G v Davey [2013] EWHC 2317 (Admin)
  • U.K., S-G v McEvoy [2014] EWHC 4788 (Admin)
  • U.K., ex p The Telegraph Group plc [1993] 1 WLR 980
  • U.K., R v B [2006] EWCA Crim 2692

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

Official Case Documents

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