Allegations of gang rape against a group of premiership football stars have prompted fears among journalists that MPs may try to ban publication of similar stories in future.

Media and legislators are set to do battle over two key issues: how far press freedom in Britain endangers the footballers' chances of a fair trial, and whether the names of people accused of sex crimes should be released at all.

Interviews with ‘sources close to the family’, police sources, unnamed Premiership players who deny involvement and people connected with the hotel where the attack took place are already splashed across the tabloids.

Many fear intrusive reporting, before anyone has even been charged, could lead to a mistrial if the judge feels the jury’s opinion has been prejudiced by sensational stories they have read in the papers.

Sunday Mirror editor Colin Myler resigned in April 2001, after his paper published a feature which lead to the collapse of the trial in Hull of two Leeds United footballers. The cost of the trial was estimated at the time to be £8 million.

Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, is worried some of the reporting around the current ‘rape’ case may go too far into territory where it could prejudice any future trial.

In 'guidance' to editors reporting the case, Lord Goldsmith wrote yesterday that he understood the 'strength of interest among members of the public' in the case.

But, the guidance went on, "He is very concerned that evidence is not distorted by potentially prejudicial reporting at this stage.

"Although there have not yet been any arrests, and there may not be any, he feels bound to remind editors of their obligations not to publish material [...] that may create a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the course of justice."

The second issue MPs will be considering after their recess could helpfully be termed the 'mud sticks' debate.

Several celebrities have recently been thrust into the limelight in a manner they would have preferred to avoid - being named in connection with allegations of rape or sexual assault.

John Leslie, Neil and Christine Hamilton, and Matthew Kelly have now all been declared innocent of allegations brought against them in the press after they were variously arrested, questioned or even charged by police.

Current law states that any adult charged with a criminal offence should be named, in the interest of open justice.

Though no arrests have yet been made, speculation as to the identity of the accused has been rife on internet sites and, naming no names of course, yet, on the pages of the tabloids.

Newspapers and broadcasters alike are subject to libel laws and risk being fined or sent to prison if they print 'prejudicial' material, but the men under investigation can, and no doubt will be named, if charges are brought against them.

In light of cases like John Leslie's, many are now suggesting the mere allegation of a sex crime - regardless on the party's innocence - may be enough to destroy that person's reputation and career, and that the law on what can be published needs to be changed.

What the papers are saying about the 'footballer rape' case

The Guardian
"As investigators from Operation Sapphire, Scotland Yard's specialist sex crimes unit, viewed CCTV footage and completed a forensic search of rooms at the Grosvenor House hotel, where the attack is alleged to have taken place, concerns were raised at the prospect of the players' names becoming public.

"David Blunkett, the home secretary, is keen to avoid legislation and is known to be concerned that if the footballers' names do become widely known the case could be cited by MPs in favour of legislation to restrict what the media can report in such cases."
"Officers are anxious to learn the lessons from recent sex-attack cases involving celebrities that have collapsed into farce. In August, TV presenter John Leslie walked free from court - cleared of indecent assault.

"Leslie, the former host of This Morning, had been named by the media and subjected to a series of allegations about his sex life from a string of women."

The Sun
"Lawyers yesterday leapt into action to stamp on emails linking a string of Premiership footballers with the alleged hotel gang-rape.

"One email was allegedly traced to an employee of a large company. He has been put on notice while the claim is investigated.

"And the legal eagles threaten to sue anyone else circulating such emails — in a crackdown on wild internet gossip about the case."

BBC News
"Two parliamentary committees proposed an amendment to the Sexual Offences Bill to make it illegal for newspapers to publish the names of those accused of sexual offences before they have been charged.

"This week concern has also been raised over controls of the internet after names of footballers allegedly involved in the incident were widely circulated on websites."