American newspapers are waking up to the fact that the Contempt of Court Act is effectivly gagging the British media’s reporting of the investigations into suspected would-be suicide bombers.

Here’s a story by Mary Jacoby of the Wall Street Journal about why the story has all but disappeared from British newstands after the saturation coverage of a few weeks ago:

The change wasn’t due to lack of interest in one of the world’s most competitive media markets. Rather, as soon as the suspects appeared in court on Monday, charged with conspiracy to murder and other crimes, the news media are prohibited by British law from reporting information that might prevent their fair trials. That means until their trials begin in a year or more, virtually nothing about them can appear in London’s 12 daily newspapers and other media beyond such basic facts as their names, ages and the charges against them.

The legal restrictions are designed to ensure potential jurors don’t read, watch or hear any reports that might influence their view of a case. Defense lawyers and the government say such measures are especially important because Britain’s newspapers are notoriously intrusive and aggressive but often inaccurate and sensationalistic. “Got the bastards” read the page-one headline of the big-circulation Sun tabloid the day after the final arrests took place.

The media rules, however, are posing increasing problems. The proliferation of the Internet and other alternative media is limiting the British government’s ability to restrict information since Britons can read online coverage by foreign newspapers and independent bloggers. In theory, foreign news media are subject to the same restrictions on print editions that are sold on British newsstands and on their Web sites, which can be read in the U.K. But no foreign news outlet has ever been prosecuted under the law. “In general, the English papers are perceived to be the papers that will be read by potential jurors,&Rdquo; said Paul Gilbert, a media-law expert at Finers, Stephens, Innocent LLP in London.

In terror investigations that tend to drag on for years, some politicians and lawyers complain that the media blackout leaves the British public in the dark about alleged terrorist networks, contributing to a false sense of security and making it difficult for politicians like Prime Minister Tony Blair to argue for more forceful action against potential security threats.

Already, U.K. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith warned the press, in email messages to news organizations and their lawyers, that he would “have no hesitation in taking appropriate action” against media outlets whose coverage he deemed to jeopardize a fair trial. Lord Goldsmith, as well as the judge presiding over a trial, may accuse journalists of violating the ban, and the charge is then tried either in the same court or another court. The maximum punishment is two years in prison and an unlimited fine.

Several British journalists contacted for this article declined to comment, saying they feared that even general remarks could get them in trouble with the courts.

Press restrictions continue even after a trial has begun in Britain. The news media may report only what is said before the jury. Information gleaned from outside conversations with lawyers and other sources is blocked by law. Only after the trials of everyone accused in a crime have been completed can the news media fully report on a case.

CBS news correspondent Richard Roth has a similar view:

… a major reason why information tends to flow freer in the U.S. than in the U.K. lies in the law.

Despite their shared foundation in common law, there are sharply divergent views and practice in America and Britain on what the public is entitled to know about crimes, criminals and the justice system; in particular, where the line gets drawn between a defendant’s right to a fair trial — and the public’s right to know.

At the extreme, media free-for-alls that surrounded the prosecutions of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson have been seen here as illustrations of the U.S. system gone awry. When evidence and legal strategy are topics for comment outside the courtroom; when lawyers and witnesses talk to the press; and when reporters write about all this in detail, commenting on the strength of the case and even speculating on the jury’s demeanor – the British have always argued that justice suffers.

In Britain, under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, newspapers and broadcasters can be prosecuted for publishing anything that might “create a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.”

In practice, once an arrest warrant has been issued, the law amounts to a gag order on the press. In trial coverage here, the cue to the reader or listener that a reporter is operating under restrictions comes at the end of the story, with the words, “the case continues.”

In effect, that means, “I know a lot more about what’s going on here, what the evidence really shows, what the lawyers are trying to establish, what the defendant’s alibi will be — but I can’t share it with you until it comes out in testimony or the trial’s over.&Rdquo;

The idea is to ensure that jurors will be able to hear and evaluate the evidence free of any outside interference; that only what’s said and shown in court will count. …

It will be intersting to see what stories about the attempted bombings emerge from the rest of the world’s media as, um, the case continues.