Gary Neville, social media, & contempt of court
Readers will know that the Ryan Giggs’ Crown Court trial came to an inconclusive end last week, because the jury could not reach a verdict. The jurors were discharged, and a decision about a re-trial is awaited.
Shortly afterwards, it emerged (as journalists like to say) that a social media post by Gary Neville, Giggs’ former teammate at Manchester United and current business partner, has resulted in a referral to the Attorney General over contempt of court concerns.
Giggs has been on trial facing charges of actual bodily harm and controlling and coercive behaviour, but denies the charges. We do not know what Gary Neville’s post said, and as proceedings are technically still active against Giggs (because he awaits a CPS decision on whether to seek a retrial), it would not be wise to repeat it anyway.
But, what we do know is that on Day 3 of the trial, the prosecution made the trial Judge aware of an Instagram post by Mr. Neville, which he had published at 4.00 am on the morning of the first day of the trial.
Counsel for Giggs told the Court that he wanted to make it "crystal clear" that the defendant did not have anything to do with the Instagram post. Mr. Neville’s agent has reportedly said that the post related to how the Glazer family are running Manchester United, rather than to the trial.
In dealing with the issue following the discharge of the jury, the Judge said:
“Both the prosecution and defence agreed with me, in the absence of any comment from the jury, and given my clear direction, the trial could properly continue.
“However, given the author is a person with a high public profile and his social media account has 1.5 million followers, it could be seen to be an attempt to influence ongoing criminal proceedings and could be contempt of court.
“Accordingly, I am referring the matter to the office of the Attorney General for the consideration of a potential prosecution.”
Self evidently, we have no idea what the outcome of the referral to the Attorney General will be. It may transpire that the post was innocuous and he is absolutely innocent of contempt.
But whatever the outcome, and even if the AG takes no action, this serves as a timely reminder that contempt of court laws apply to social media posts in exactly the same way as they apply to traditional publishing outlets and websites.
Guidance from the Attorney General’s Office in relation to contempt of court and social media (published last year) reminds all users, including journalists and publishers, that posting about a case or upcoming trial could amount to contempt of court if it:
- “Comments on facts or evidence that will be heard during the trial.
- Mentions the defendant’s previous convictions or character.
- Names someone in breach of an injunction or court order.
- Names victims, witnesses, and offenders under the age of 18.
- Names a victim of a sex crime.
- Shares any information about a case that the judge has ordered to be kept private.
- Records and/or shares images, video content, or sound clips from the trial.
- Publishes a court judgment in breach of an embargo.”
From the point of view of those in charge of editorial content, it is also vital to consider whether the comments facility on their social media posts should be turned off, to avoid a situation where a publisher’s post attracts prejudicial comments from third parties which amount to a contempt of court.
Whilst the legal position on prosecuting the publisher for contempt in this kind of scenario is complicated, such post and/or comments have the potential to cause the collapse of a trial in the most serious cases, which is obviously something with which a publisher does not want to be associated.
The prosecution of a publisher is not a theoretical risk. Remember the prosecution of the publishers of the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror for publishing background information on Levi Bellfield following his conviction for the murder and abduction of Milly Dowler, whilst a verdict was still outstanding in relation to the attempted kidnap of another victim? Their convictions resulted in each being fined £10,000, with each also being ordered to pay costs of £25,000.
Only a year earlier, the Mirror and the Sun had been fined for articles relating to the arrest of Christopher Jefferies on suspicion of murdering Joanna Yates. He was innocent and was never charged, but had matters reached that stage, it was deemed that the coverage would have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the administration of justice.
More recently, Tommy Robinson was prosecuted for contempt for live-streaming footage of the defendants in a sexual exploitation trial, in breach of a reporting restriction.
The stakes are high when it comes to the consequences of being found to be in contempt of court, for both individuals and publishers. The referral of Gary Neville to the Attorney General is a timely reminder that just as much care needs to be taken when publishing on social media, as when publishing in print or online.
If only he had brushed up on the Contempt of Court Act before posting his comments in the early hours of day 1 of the trial……..