Monday, 14 February 2011

An Avoidable Tragedy

There's a story on the front page of today's Times newspaper, repeated in other outlets today, which details the tragic deaths of two teenage girls on a level crossing in 2005, and their families' demands for a new inquiry into their deaths.

13 year old Charlotte Thompson and her 14 year old friend Olivia Bazlinton were killed instantly when they were struck by a train at the unmanned crossing in Essex in December that year. Their families remain traumatised by their bereavement, and the photographs shown of the girls smiling and joyful, makes their premature deaths all the more poignant.

The Times goes into detail about claims that a risk assessment on the crossing was withheld from the inquest, and claims that had risk assessments been more accurate, and locking gates been fitted to the crossing, the girls' deaths would have been prevented. The conclusion The Times reaches: their deaths were entirely avoidable.

But The Times studiously omits what I think is the most relevant factor in the whole case (and in doing so speaks volumes to me about the way society has changed from an ethos of personal responsibility, to one of dishing out blame).

I had to go back to this 2007 report from the Guardian before I could find the relevant information. It is a report of the inquest. Now before we get to it, let's be clear, locking gates would undoubtedly have been more secure. I wish very much that Charlotte and Olivia were still alive today.
But the train did not chase the girls across the pavement and down the street. As The Guardian report reveals, the two girls - tragically - had ignored the flashing red lights and sirens on the crossing, and had made a ill-fated dash for it.

Instead of blaming the lack of locking gates for the girls' deaths, the terrible reality is that they themselves diced with death and lost the gamble. Charlotte and Olivia certainly knew what the sirens meant, they knew the red lights meant 'do not cross', but they did it anyway.

I know there are various behavioural experts who will likely explain that teenage brains do not have an adult's capacity to appreciate the concept of mortality, but the reality is that children who use level crossings must be told, and told again: familiarity with a crossing must not breed contempt or complacency toward it, warning lights and sirens cannot be ignored, it's just not worth taking the risk.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Contempt and Twitter

The Attorney General is apparently concerned that social media is a threat to the smooth running of justice. Dominic Grieve is considering whether to issue an advisory warning about coverage of the Jo Yeates murder - in particular the way the main suspect Chris Jefferies is being portrayed in print and online. It is far from being a new concern, and tabloid headlines have often trodden perilously close to declaring a suspect guilty long before a jury has had the chance to.

What marks out this latest case is the influence of social media websites such as Twitter in mixing fact, rumour, speculation and reportage, and disseminating it with lightning speed. Barely a decade ago, the risk of local jurors being prejudiced about a case could be largely neutralised by moving proceedings to a different Crown Court in a different town. In today's global cyber village, we're all effectively living in the same street. Online, the murder of Jo Yeates is being followed as intently in Kirkaldy as it is in Jo's home district of Clifton.

And while the mainstream media are regulated and (by-and-large) abide by those regulations, individual Tweeters face only the remote prospect of being sued for libel. In a murder case, a journalism professional will certainly toe the legal line when they tweet updates. A non-reporter neither knows - nor probably cares - where that legal line is. (Indeed, the notorious 'Baby P' child abuse case showed how internet users are sometimes prepared to deliberately flout legal restrictions.) The risks of false, prejudicial, and malicious gossip gaining widespread currency online are huge.

The water has been muddied somewhat by the permitted use of Twitter in reporting the extradition hearing of Julian Assange. Recording devices and cameras are absolutely banned from courtrooms, and court ushers routinely warn journalists and the public that mobile phones must be switched off during proceedings. Now it seems the use of Twitter in court will be decided on a case by case basis.

So the dilemma facing the Attorney General - and all of us who believe in fair trials - is deciding where to draw the line. How best to balance the rights of a free press and the understandable curiosity of the public, with the absolute need for the trial process to remain untainted? The rules banning prejudicial reporting are already in place, but are routinely bent by the professionals. The reason why? The law on contempt is itself held in contempt. It has no deterrent effect because in case after case, the Attorney General berates the media but declines to actually prosecute.

Proving contempt of court (ie: that a report created a 'serious risk of substantial prejudice') is notoriously difficult. But applying a three decades old Act of Parliament to police the modern phenomenon of social media is surely near impossible.