The Attorney General has been criticised for issuing a warning to the media about its reporting of the allegations made against Russell Brand.
The note from Victoria Prentis said she “wishes to amplify the importance of not publishing any material where there is a risk that it could prejudice any potential criminal investigation or prosecutions.
“Publishing this material could amount to contempt of court.”
It warned editors to ensure they “are in a position to fully comply with the obligations to which they are subject under the common law and Contempt of Court Act 1981”.
Strict liability contempt under the Act applies to legal proceedings that are “active” at the time of the publication, which is generally accepted to be if a summons has been issued or a defendant arrested without warrant.
Neither has happened in Brand’s case.
The Times newspaper, which along with its Sunday sister paper and Channel 4’s Dispatches programme broke the story, called on Ms Prentis to withdraw the media advisory “immediately”.
In an opinion column, Times senior writer Sean O’Neill wrote: “Anyone with even the sketchiest knowledge of how the media works surely knows that every single word of reporting on Brand has been rigorously scrutinised before publication.”
He added: “The Attorney General is either poorly informed about the law of contempt or has taken it upon herself to issue a thinly veiled threat intended to have a chilling effect on reporting of the Brand allegations.
“The work of journalists on The Times, The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches brought these allegations (which Brand denies) to light and forced the police to open an inquiry.
“Is the Government telling reporters to stop interviewing women who have courageously come forward, stop pursuing legitimate and important public interest journalism?
“Meanwhile, Brand is free to pontificate on social media channels. Prentis’s intervention is a shocking overreach. It is not her job to tell reporters to stop reporting on issues where there is merely the “potential” for criminal proceedings.
“It is the job of reporters to uncover misconduct and wrongdoing, to gather evidence that could lead to criminal trials.”
The column concluded: “The Attorney General’s censorious warning has no basis in law. She should withdraw it immediately.”
The Attorney General’s Office has been contacted for comment.