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Finsbury Park van attack: Media lawyer says newspapers have ‘pushed at the boundaries’ and may be in contempt of court

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Morning headlines could spell trouble for press

Image via Twitter (@aaalec)

A media law expert who went viral yesterday for defending the press against accusations of unfair reporting has now said newspapers may have “pushed at the boundaries” with their morning headlines.

During the early hours of Monday morning, a van struck pedestrians close to Muslim Welfare House in Finsbury Park, injuring several. They had been helping a man who had collapsed; he later died but it’s not clear at this stage if it was because of the attack.

The suspect has been named as Darren Osborne, aged 47 or 48 depending on what you read, from Cardiff. The Metropolitan Police has said he was being held on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism including murder and attempted murder.

Media coverage of the incident has arguably been somewhat muted, at least compared to the recent spate of terror attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge. Notably, the press has been careful not to explicitly link the incident to terrorism, many newspapers punting for ‘Finsbury Park attack’ and ‘Van attack’ instead.

Why? Some have speculated it’s because the attacker is white:

Similar vilification was directed at the press over its reporting of the Damon Smith trial. The 20-year-old was found guilty of planting a homemade bomb at North Greenwich tube station by the Jubilee Line when he was 19. He was sentenced to 15 years behind bars.

While Smith was called a “weapons-obsessed student”, a “tube bomb plotter” and an “ex-altar boy”, the media strayed away from the word “terrorist”. Again, social media wondered whether Smith’s ethnicity had something to do with this:

This week, legal experts have stepped forward to clear up this hoo-ha. Here is media law guru David Banks’ explanation:

Lawyer and writer David Allen Green made a similar point when he said:

(For further information on this, see former journo Steve Parks’ interesting Twitter thread and Banks’ contempt of court blog post.)

A selection of this morning’s headlines, which Legal Cheek has chosen not to reproduce here, could possibly cause problems in relation to contempt of court. On this, Banks told us:

I think papers have pushed at the boundaries today… Talking about motive, mental state, that could very much be at issue at trial.

Whether this will lead to contempt of court proceedings, brought by the Attorney General, is unclear. “A lot depends on the Attorney General’s attitude to contempt and Dominic Grieve’s successors do not seem as quick to prosecute as under his regime,” Banks said.

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