Earlier this year, England’s attorney general accused the magazine publisher Condé Nast of interfering with the 2013 News of the World phone-hacking trial by permitting British GQ to publish a courtroom report—excerpted here—by the American media columnist Michael Wolff. The charges were brazenly contemptuous of press freedom, but as we noted at the time, they apparently inspired Condé to erase nearly every trace of Wolff’s column from the internet. Today, the Lord Chief Justice of London’s High Court of Justice ruled against Condé in an eleven-page decision, holding the publisher in contempt of court:
I am left in little doubt that the effect of the article read as a whole was very seriously prejudicial. I cannot accept the submission advanced by Condé Nast that the article was riddled with ambiguity and lacking in identifiable assertions or that it was difficult to search for its meaning. On the contrary, it plainly implied that Mr Rupert Murdoch was a participant in the phone hacking, that the defendants must have been aware of the phone hacking, that the defence was being funded by him and conducted on the defendants’ instructions so as to protect his interests, but in a way that might also secure their acquittal. It was not mere comment or observation, but an article that made the clear implications about Mr Rupert Murdoch, Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson I have set out.
Curiously, Condé’s defense team tried to convince the court that Wolff, the author of The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch, is incapable of gathering and reporting information from inside Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Understandably, the court did not exactly buy that argument:
Condé Nast described him in the submissions made to the court as someone who could not provide any inside information and was no more than a journalist who wrote in adverse terms about News International Ltd. However, although it is plain Mr Wolff was hostile to News International Ltd and Mr Murdoch and not an inside source, in my view he wrote the article as someone who was an experienced media commentator who could speak with knowledge and a degree of authority. GQ published the article in that context; their submission to the court was an ex post facto attempt to belittle him and the article.
According to The Guardian, it’s unclear what kind of fine Condé will incur due to the ruling. Under U.K. law, however, there is virtually no limit to how much judges can levy against parties (such as Condé) found to be in contempt of court:
Lord Thomas said a hearing would be held at a future date to decide on the penalty that should be imposed – including a potentially “unlimited” fine. One senior legal source suggested the fine might be approximately £10,000 – a punishment described by Thomas in a separate contempt of court case in 2012 as “the very bottom end of the scale” – but pointed out that the article had not caused the trial to be halted or abandoned.