On the sidelines of the Simon Harwood trial, the judge, Mr Justice Fulford, has looked at how high-profile cases are reported in the internet age, making decisions with potentially far-reaching significance for the media. Fulford cited earlier newspaper reports giving some general details about Harwood’s chequered disciplinary record, information which, he had already ruled, the jury should not hear.
The prosecution drew up an initially lengthy list of suspect newspaper articles, including some in the Guardian. In the end Fulford asked just the Telegraph and the Mail websites to remove stories voluntarily, which they did.
As a precedent this has the potential to fundamentally alter the way the media report trials in the digital era. In the gap between an alleged offence and arrest (and, in practice, sometimes between arrest and charging, and even between arrest and trial) it is common to report details that cannot be raised once a court case begins. That was particularly relevant in the case of Harwood, when it initially seemed there was going be no prosecution. If Fulford’s reasoning becomes accepted, then before any jury trial each media group will need to comb their digital archives for stories containing potential contempt of court issues.
Jonathan Caplan QC, for the Mail’s publishers, Associated Newspapers said it was simply not practical to ringfence jurors in the internet age and they had to be trusted to follow a judge’s instructions to not carry out their own research on the internet.
It remains to be seen how far a single high court judge can reshape digital reporting. What is certain is that media organisations will study Fulford’s ruling carefully and, most likely, challenge it.