Don't put Brooks-Coulson trial at risk with idle talk, MPs told
MPs warned not to commit contempt of court by debating the Old Bailey criminal trial
MEMBERS of Parliament are being warned not to commit contempt of court by debating the criminal trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and other former Murdoch newspaper executives on charges arising from the News of the World phone hacking affair. Both Brooks and Coulson deny conspiring with others to listen to voicemails and - with regard to alleged payments to public officials - conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office.
Mr Justice Saunders, who is presiding over the trial which starts this morning at the Old Bailey, and Solicitor-General Oliver Heald have already issued warnings to the media reminding them not to stray from the strict Contempt of Court Act reporting rules in the UK. Now MPs are being urged to take care.
"The solicitor general, as independent guardian of the public interest, wrote to the leaders of each of the main Westminster parties advising them that this trial was due to start shortly," a spokesman told the Daily Telegraph.
"He asked for their assistance in ensuring that party members and officials refrained from any commentary which may be perceived as prejudicial to the case and those involved."
There are particular concerns that MPs will be tempted to comment on the trial because of Coulson's former role as David Cameron's spin-doctor, The Guardian reported this morning.
MPs have special protection - parliamentary privilege - to ensure their freedom of speech is not inhibited, but the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow, is expected to warn them to keep away from the subject for fear that an MP might go over the top and their comments lead to the trial having to be abandoned.
Another reason why some MPs may be tempted to comment on the trial is because, on Wednesday, the Privy Council is due to apply the Royal Seal of Approval to the Royal Charter on new regulation of the press in the wake of the inquiry by Lord Leveson into abuse of power by the media.
The Leveson inquiry was set up following the allegations of phone hacking that have led to Coulson, Brooks and others facing criminal charges in what could be the longest criminal trial in recent history - it's expected to last until Easter.
Most of the national newspapers - with the noted exceptions of The Guardian and the Financial Times - are united against the regulations and are threatening a judicial review to delay the charter. Unless they succeed, Culture Secretary Maria Miller is expected to make a Commons statement on Wednesday confirming the Privy Council decision to go ahead with the Charter.
Miller delayed the implementation of the Charter until 30 October to give more time for talks with the media to reach agreement on a joint approach. But the consultations look like a sham after Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander confirmed on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show yesterday that the Privy Council will go ahead despite the failure to reach agreement with the press.
"We are now going to take the charter to the Privy Council, have that charter agreed and go forward from there," Alexander told Marr. Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, made it clear the Opposition are fully in agreement with the government's controversial regulation of the press.
No wonder the media suspect a government stitch-up over the timing of the Privy Council decision. The delay until Wednesday will put the future of the Press in the dock with Coulson, Brooks and the other ex-Murdoch men at the Old Bailey. ·