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May 15, 2024updated 17 May 2024 2:19pm

New Yorker defies contempt risk to publish Lucy Letby story in UK print edition

The case may set up a showdown between England's justice system and the magazine.

By Bron Maher

A New Yorker story revisiting the conviction of Lucy Letby has been published in the title’s print and mobile app editions despite being blocked on its website to comply with reporting restrictions.

The Condé Nast-owned publication confirmed this week that the web version of the article had been blocked in the UK “to comply with a court order restricting press coverage of Lucy Letby’s ongoing trial”.

But a company spokesperson told Columbia Journalism Review: “As there is one print edition of The New Yorker worldwide, subscribers in the UK will receive the same copy as everyone else.”

Has The New Yorker committed contempt of court?

Press Gazette reviewed a copy of The New Yorker in a Central London newsagent on Wednesday afternoon and confirmed it features the Letby story both on the cover and inside the issue.

The article is also available to UK readers through the New Yorker app, as well as via some third-party publisher access services such as Libby, which allows readers to access digital editions of periodicals to which their library subscribes.

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Letby, who was convicted in August of murdering seven babies, is facing a retrial beginning in June on one count of attempted murder. The Crown Prosecution Service issued an order in September saying “there should be no reporting, commentary or sharing of information online which could in any way prejudice these proceedings”.

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Jon Oakley, a partner in the reputation team at law firm Simkins, told Press Gazette: “There is no distinction in the law between publication in a hard copy or electronically.

“The question as to whether it is permissible to publish certain information will be fact-sensitive in each case, and it will be for the publisher in question to ensure that they stay on the right side of the law, especially given that the penalties for breaching the law can be serious.”

The goal of reporting restrictions is to prevent the publication of material that might endanger the trial process, for example by prejudicing members of the jury against the accused. Contempt of court is a criminal offence in England and Wales, and journalists found guilty of contempt may be imprisoned. 

The publication of The New Yorker’s Letby story in the UK may set up a showdown between UK courts and publisher Condé Nast.

However Godwin Busuttil, a barrister from 5RB chambers in London, told Press Gazette: “If you do not have an incorporated entity in this country, in England, which is responsible for the publication of the material in question… the court cannot enforce contempt orders.” (The New Yorker itself no longer has a corporate entity in the UK, but parent Condé Nast is.)

Busuttil added that the reporter of the article would likely only be at risk of arrest if they had been “based in England and they knew about the order and they published into this country”.

Conservative MP David Davis criticised the web block on the New Yorker story on Tuesday, saying “it seems to me in defiance of open justice” and asked the Government to review the orders restricting publication.

What are the Letby retrial reporting restrictions?

The court-ordered reporting restrictions around Letby’s retrial are as follow:

“It is ordered that the following matters may be reported:

  1. The outcomes of the original trial (ie the verdicts or failures to reach verdicts);
  2. That the prosecution presently intend to proceed to re-try the defendant on one count of attempted murder upon which the jury at the original trial were discharged from reaching a verdict (count 14 the attempted murder);
  3. The provisional trial date is June 10 2024 with an estimated length of trial of up to four weeks.
  4. There should be no reporting of any matter which will create a substantial (that means ‘not minimal’) risk of prejudice to the administration of justice in a trial on count 14.”

News publications and social media users may therefore refer to Letby’s previous conviction — on seven counts of murder and six of attempted murder — as well as the determination that she was not guilty on two counts of attempted murder and the jury’s failure to return a verdict on a further six charges of attempted murder. It is one of the latter counts that did not return a verdict that is being retried.

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
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  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
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