Here come the (thought) police

A COUPLE of jurors have been in the news this week, one for speaking his mind in court, one for speaking his mind on Facebook.

One is now facing a contempt charge after he allegedly committed his thoughts on being chosen to try a man charged with sexual offences against a child to his Facebook page. He may be regretting being quite so frank in allegedly saying he “wanted to fuck up a paedophile.”

The other was a juror on a sexual offence trial in Tyneside, but his problem was not the nature of the offence, it was the origins of the offender – a Mackem (native of Sunderland) whose home team had just given the Geordie juror’s team, Newcastle United a 3-0 drubbing in the local derby. The juror was, he confessed, incapable of trying the man fairly and was discharged.

Cue outrage on Twitter at his confession, especially as the delay to the trial meant the victim had to go through evidence again.

Would we rather both had remained silent? Of course it would be preferable that all jurors arrived at trial capable of setting aside prejudice and trying the case solely on the evidence.

But if they are not capable of doing so, isn’t it better to know that?

The Toon fan made his feelings known in court, so avoided anything more than the disapproval of the court, and a vocal few on Twitter and elsewhere. The Facebooking juror is facing somewhat more serious consequences.

This raises a wider point about the way in which offensive behaviour on social media is being policed and reported by the media and it follows on from the post I wrote below, about Paris Brown.

At the moment publication on social media is being treated by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts as just that, a form of publication, which it undoubtedly is. I would argue that it is more than that, it is fundamentally different to that.

Publication has for centuries now, involved many tiers of eyes examining an article, book or broadcast before it reached the general public. The exception being, perhaps, live TV, but even there a time delay and a watchful eye meant the public were usually spared anything too offensive.

In my own experience, any piece of writing I perpetrated had to get past a newsdesk, sub editor, chief sub editor, night editor and stone sub before it reached the paper and I, like many reporters before me, am grateful for their eternal vigilance.

Now, however the means of publication, or in the case of the retweet, re-publication, has been out in the hands of everyone. Anyone can distribute their thoughts to the multitude, in subbed, as fresh as the moment they had them. Much of it is wonderful, some of it mundane and plenty of it actionable in law.

And the instantaneous nature of social media publication, I would argue, differentiates it for any form of publishing we have seen before. If you watch a young person going at their iPhone, you realise just how slow your own thumbs are and how quickly they can commit their thoughts to the ether. And this is my fundamental point, this is less like publication and more like thought. Many users of social media, especially Twitter, are simply thinking out loud, very loud.

Of course, one might argue, it is their own fault, they know the power of the retweet, they ought know their digital thoughts become permanent and searchable for all to discover. But the vilification of the likes of Paris Brown and the juror who didn’t like paedos simply tells people to keep their thoughts to themselves. It does not address the fact that they have those thoughts in the first place.

This is what social media is showing us, that there is an ugly side to people’s nature and before they would only express it to family, close friends and those who shared their views, now they are committing it to the Internet.

And is this what we want? I think yes, I would rather know what a juror thought about me, so he could be discharged, than him keep it a secret and find me guilty.

When Orwell wrote 1984 he envisaged cameras in every home spying on our every action. This is so much more than that, we don’t need the cameras, we have Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and more where people voluntarily sign up not only to record their actions but also their very thoughts.

The thought police are here, but they weren’t sent in by Big Brother, they are us.


  1. And who has most interest in policing and suppressing social media?…..
    Guess who wrote:

    ‘Super-injunction crackdown on Google and Twitter could be good news for journalists

    Posted by ……………………………………. on 16 May 2011 at 11:01

    Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt pledged last week to look at new regulations to cover new media publishers – particularly Twitter – who are making a mockery of UK privacy laws.
    He had better act fast because unregulated blogs and Twitterers are having a field day with the issue of super-injunctions.

    The latest miscreant I’ve seen is Google, via a hugely popular blog which has published a shared Google Doc listing all 80 of the privacy injunctions that we know about and listing many of those who are believed to be behind them. The spreadsheet includes a column amusingly headed “proof” about the provenance of each alleged injunction – which often lists this as “speculation”.

    I would argue that by publishing this spreadsheet Google is just as much a publisher as any blog or newspaper website. Incidentally, the blog itself is hosted by Google on its Blogger platform.

    Some newspapers say that the widespread flouting of injunctions online is an argument for doing away with them.
    But surely there will always be a case for prior-restraint on journalism in some cases? Such as in criminal prosecutions for blackmail and to protect vulnerable children.

    Shouldn’t the super-injunction furore be viewed as an opportunity to reign in the many blogs, social media websites and others who seek to publish without responsibility?

    This could turn out to be an opportunity for the professional journalism industry – an industry which invests a great deal of time and money in ensuring that what it publishes is legal and ethical.

    New Government regulation on publishers such as Twitter and Google could enable the real publishing industry to regain ground lost to new media – particularly the many millions of lost advertising income.

    Perhaps Twitter and Google need to learn that you can’t do news for free and you can’t let people stick anything they like on your website without accepting the consequences.’

    That came from the editor’s blog of a well known British based press and media trade rag…. 🙂

    (BTW, a Google search will find a reference to the original article OK, but the link won’t take you back to the original page, nor, seemingly, will a search on the relevant site…if you have the patience to wait long enough. Neither Google cache or the Way Back machine seem to have copies either)

    So are you really surprised that leading the charge on poor Paris Brown are none other than the leaders of the wonderful UK tabloid army, the warriors who will sacrifice the last drop of someone, anyone, else’s blood to defend that last bastion of the ethical press in the free world?

    As was written elsewhere on a very similar topic, the freeedom of the blogosphere etc, not too long ago….’The Press and ‘freedom of speech’? The first real opportunity they have, when someone slips up badly, just watch, they will be coming to reign you (bloggers and social media posters) in….or maybe they think that, as the quid pro quo, they now have…. ‘

    Your last sentence should have read…The thought police are here, but they weren’t sent in by Big Brother, they were sent in by us.

  2. Once upon a time newspapers consisted of words written by professionals, people (even those on the Sun, nay, even those on the Daily Hate Mail) more literate than the average, and printed on machinery operated by other highly skilled professionals.

    The Rupert Murdoch with the support of the late Margaret Thatcher broke the print unions – and a good thing too – and newspapers are now produced differently; the work has in part been deskilled.

    And now, what do you know? the other lot of professionals concerned are feeling the cold wind of competition too. Journalistic comment is no longer in the hands of a literate elite.

    And there is a price to pay: the dissemination of a great deal of ignorant and sometimes damaging junk. Holocaust denial; crackpot conspiracy theories; contempt of court. That’s life. I don’t suppose the National Union of Monks and Ecclesiastical Operatives were too keen on the coming of the printing press!

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