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.

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