06 Oct 6 October 2023
In this issue of zoom-in brief, actor and screenwriter, Steve Coogan, faces defamation proceedings over the 2022 film, The Lost King; Northern Ireland implements new rules around the reporting of sexual offence allegations; and recent contempt warnings raise questions about reporting at different stages of the criminal justice process.
Defamation – UK – The Lost King – Steve Coogan faces defamation claim
Richard Taylor, an academic from the University of Leicester, has announced plans to bring defamation proceedings against actor and screenwriter Steve Coogan over the 2022 film The Lost King.
The film, co-written by Coogan and starring Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins, dramatises the discovery of Richard III’s remains under a carpark in Leicester.
Taylor claims he asked filmmakers to remove a scene from the film and add a note to the credits to clarify that the character depicted in the film was not based on him. He says his request was rejected.
The film-makers defended the film at the time, stating that “The university and Richard Taylor have a different narrative, much of which is factually incorrect.”
Taylor has now said he plans to sue Coogan and two production companies that made the film, claiming that he is depicted as a “bullying, cynical, double-crossing, devious manipulator”. In particular, Taylor has said he objects to a scene where the character is seen to mock Richard III’s disabilities.
Coogan and the production companies have not yet commented.
Claimants in England can sue for defamation over works of fiction “if reasonable people could think the claimant was referred to”. In 1954, an actress successfully sued for damages over a book where a minor character of the same name was described as a trouble maker and a person who was difficult to work with, and a number of references and incidents tended to connect her with the character.
zoom-in will continue to follow the case as it develops.
UK – New laws in Northern Ireland transform reporting on sexual offences
New laws that came into force last week will have major implications for the way the media report sexual offence allegations in Northern Ireland.
The Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 implements recommendations made by Sir John Gillen in his recent review of serious sexual offence cases. It introduces significant changes, rendering the position in Northern Ireland much stricter than in England and Wales. zoom-in breaks down the key changes below…
- First, the existing laws which prohibit identifying the victim or complainant of a sexual offence have been extended. Currently, these laws grant automatic anonymity to victims and complainants during their lifetime. Under the new laws, the prohibition on identifying victims and complainants will be extended so they cannot be identified until 25 years after their death – although this will be subject to any application to the magistrates’ court to disapply or modify the restriction. The penalty for breaching the anonymity laws has also been strengthened.
- Second, the new laws also grant automatic anonymity to people accused of committing a sexual offence, from the point at which a complaint is made to police or the police investigate- until the person is charged. This builds upon the Supreme Court’s ruling in ZXC v Bloomberg that as a general rule, a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in a police investigation up to the point of charge. However, the provisions go further and specify that if the person is not charged, their anonymity will be protected during their lifetime and for 25 years after their death.
- Third, the public will be excluded from serious sexual offence hearings in the Crown Court, with the judge making an exclusion direction before the trial specifying who can remain in court. This means that all persons will be excluded, except members and officers of the court, people directly involved in proceedings (like parties, lawyers, witnesses and interpreters), one relative or friend for each of the complainant and accused, and bona fide representatives of news organisations.
The laws have been criticised as a major departure from the principles of open justice that will have a devastating effect on the reporting of sexual abuse allegations.
Although the new rules are limited to Northern Ireland, the Law Commission of England and Wales is also considering similar changes. In its recent Consultation Paper, it proposed that the public should be automatically excluded from sexual offence trials while complainants give evidence.
zoom-in will closely follow the Law Commission’s recommendations.
Two contempt warnings issued just days apart in September have sparked debate about reporting at different stages of the criminal justice process.
One of the warnings was made by Judge Mark Lucraft KC, who convened a pre-trial hearing in the murder case against an unidentified Met Police Officer charged with the shooting of Chris Kaba in London last year. Judge Lucraft issued a statement “remind[ing] everyone of the obligation on all of us to ensure we comply with the Contempt of Court process and ensure nothing is said which could in any way be thought to prejudice ongoing criminal proceedings”. Those proceedings remain ongoing.
Separately, Attorney General Victoria Prentis issued an advisory notice to the media about reporting of allegations against Russell Brand (which Brand denies) in which she stated that she “wishe[d] to amplify the importance of not publishing any material where there is a risk that it could prejudice any potential criminal investigation or prosecutions”, and warned that “publishing this material could amount to contempt of court”.
It is not uncommon for the Attorney General to issue media advisory notices in cases attracting significant public attention. However, the recent warning about Brand was met with surprise.
Under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, proceedings become active for contempt purposes in England and Wales when a person is arrested, an arrest warrant or summons is issued, an indictment is served, or a person is charged orally. None of those events are known to have taken place in Brand’s case, prompting various publications to invite the Attorney General to withdraw the notice.
The Attorney General’s Office subsequently issued a further statement in which it said that “the media advisory was issued to remind journalists to exercise caution as common law contempt considerations apply, despite proceedings not currently being ‘active’.”
Common law contempt can be committed where proceedings are pending or imminent and there is actual intent to interfere with the administration of justice in those proceedings. It rarely arises as it is difficult to prove actual intent to prejudice a trial, particularly where any trial would not take place for many years, by which time jurors would be unlikely to recall the details of the publications so far.
The warnings are a reminder that the law of contempt is complex and remains highly relevant for anyone wishing to report on – or make programmes about – active court cases.
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