1 comment on “Contempt of Court and the challenge of social media”

Contempt of Court and the challenge of social media

WHEN the Contempt of Court Act made it onto the statute books in 1981 Twitter founder Jack Dorsey was five, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was yet to be born.

Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004; Dorsey co-created Twitter in 2006.

Understandably then, the legislators of 1981 could have had no concept of what publication would mean in the age of the Internet. Yet here we are almost 40 years later applying that same legislation to a 21st century digital media.

And it doesn’t fit.

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 was a piece of legislation that attempted to strike a balance between the right of an individual to have a trial free from prejudicial publicity; and the rights of people generally to freedom of expression.

But then prejudicial publication could only be carried out by a handful of national newspapers and there were only two broadcasters in the UK – BBC and ITV (albeit ITV was made up of a number independent regional broadcasters).

Even if you added in regional newspapers you are still dealing with publishers that might number in the tens that might publish something prejudicial about a particular case. Keeping a lid on things was relatively straightforward and the occasional prosecution had the effect of sharpening awareness among those titles that might be pushing at the boundaries.

Now publishers number in their millions. Ordinary users of Facebook or Twitter may not have follower numbers that rival a newspaper’s circulation, but that is to dismiss the viral effect of social media. One tweet is retweeted by ten followers, and ten each of theirs retweet it, and so on. Soon you get up into newspaper circulation numbers.

But for contempt, and other laws, it is not just the viral way in which posts are spread. More pernicious is the way in which users reinforce each other’s behaviour, which can have the effect of encouraging, or condoning, breaking the law.

You see this happening quite often in online communities and it is one of the factors that contribute to so-called ‘trolling’ behaviour.

It works something like this:

  • One user will post something that is close to what is acceptable behaviour, and nothing happens to them.
  • A second user decides they will push it a bit further, still nothing untoward happens.
  • Other users might make encouraging remarks, they might ‘like’ or repost the offending comment.
  • The effect of the platforms algorithms mean all those users interacting in this way get more content like this pushed at them, they all see more of each other’s posts and comments on this subject and others like it.
  • The effect of this is to create a micro-community that validates and normalises this behaviour. They don’t see anything wrong with it because they are all doing it. The normal checks and balances that operate in society to prevent us behaving in a bad way cease to operate in an online community that takes this turn.

You see this with trolling behaviour and harassment online and you see it in commentary on court cases and crime. This is a real problem for contempt law.

Of course, one might take the view that if people behave so badly they can take their knocks with a prosecution for contempt and a hefty fine or even a prison sentence.

The threat of prosecution kept newspapers and broadcasters in line for the most part, why shouldn’t it work for social media?

Newspaper editors and broadcasters sat up and took notice when someone was prosecuted for contempt. It was, and is, reported by the trade press. In-house lawyers would send round memos reminding staff of contempt law. Trainers like me would incorporate examples into our sessions to highlight the dangers.

None of that happens on social media. Facebook doesn’t put out a memo; Twitter doesn’t offer its users any training. To do so would be to accept a responsibility for what their users do and that is a precedent the platforms do no want to set.

So users, unless they keep a very close eye on such matters, do not get to hear about contempt prosecutions. Worse still they do not know about court orders that are meant to have the effect of keeping publishers in line.

When Jon Venables and Robert Thompson were released after a life sentence for the kidnap, torture and murder in 1993 of James Bulger they were made the subject of lifelong anonymity orders forbidding anyone from publishing a picture of them as adults, or revealing anything about their whereabouts or their new identities.

Last month, the actor Tina Malone was issued with a summons to the High Court after allegedly posting a picture said to be one of the killers. Malone has said she did not know sharing such an image was illegal.

In another case Cleveland Police appealed to social media users to show restraint in the wake of the death of a young man in Teesside. Elsewhere trials have been relocated as a result of widespread prejudicial commentary on social media.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, but generally we all have an idea about the laws we should not be ignorant of, be it anything from speeding to murder.

The orders placed on Venables and Thompson were made 18 years ago. Journalists know about them, it is our job to do so. Is it reasonable to expect people who do not work in media, who might not even have been born when James Bulger died or his killers were released, to know about them as well?

News organisations train their staff to know all this. I know, because I deliver the training to many of them.

You don’t get a beginners’ media law course when you open a Facebook or Twitter account. Perhaps you should, but then, again, to provide this would be accepting a degree of responsibility for what users do, which thus far platforms have scrupulously avoided.

The platforms are uniquely placed to deliver easy-to-understand guidance to their users to try to avoid some of the most outrageous examples of contempt. If contempt law is to survive, maybe it is time they reconsidered their refusal to do so.

  • If you are worried about contempt of court, this post – Contempt of Court and How to Avoid It, is far and away the most popular one on this site, so you are not alone and hopefully will find it as useful as others have.
2 comments on “Tweeting your way into prison”

Tweeting your way into prison

I ARRIVED home one Friday evening to a flurry of messages from sports reporters who follow me on Twitter.

“You have got to get on Twitter and see what Joey Barton is up to,” they said.

I logged on to find that Barton had decided to give the world the benefit of his thoughts on the viability of John Terry’s not guilty plea to a charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – a charge for which he had yet to stand trial.

Barton was typically forthright and one memorable tweet described Terry’s plea as an insult to any juror’s intelligence.

Was Barton, I was being asked somewhat hopefully it has to be said, up to his neck in contempt and would his next fixture be in court facing the Attorney General?

Fortunately for football, and Twitter’s, favourite bad boy @Joey7Barton was in the clear because Terry’s case was to be tried by magistrates, who are beyond the influence of the media, and certainly incapable of being swayed by the tweets of a footballer. Indeed, Terry was eventually found not guilty.

But as was clear from his tweet mentioning jurors, Barton didn’t know this, and nor did the many people who assumed he was about to be prosecuted for contempt.

This was a sign of things to come. Following press inquiries, the Attorney General’s office announced the following Monday that Barton would not be facing any action. But since he was appointed the AG, Dominic Grieve QC, has made it clear he takes contempt very seriously and has warned that he would prosecute bloggers and tweeters as well as traditional media if they overstepped the mark.

So it came to pass last month that two men were given nine-month suspended prison sentences after they admitted contempt by publishing on Twitter and Facebook photographs purporting to show the killers of James Bulger, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables as adults. Both are subject to a court order banning publication of any details about their new identities, location or photographs of them.

The case is the latest in a long line of incidents where ordinary members of the public have taken to social media and found themselves charged with a crime; facing substantial damages in a civil action or else doing untold damage to their own reputation through an errant post.

We are all publishers now, but mainstream publishers know the law, and even they get into trouble reasonably often. Setting up a Twitter or Facebook account is the work of moments and if memory serves does not entail a run-down of the legal pitfalls that await the unwary.

Perhaps it should, because the past year has seen a catalogue of cases illustrating the variety of ways in which individuals can break the law online.

For example, some supporters of Ched Evans, a Sheffield United and Wales footballer, took to Twitter when he was convicted of rape, naming the victim. Ten of them were tracked down by North Wales Police. They now have a criminal record for an offence under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992.

Even the judicial process itself can be derailed by the injudicious use of Twitter or Facebook. One juror had to be discharged after she confessed to her Facebook friends that she was having difficulty deciding the case she was trying so asked them to help. Another was sentenced to eight months in prison after she Facebook friended a defendant she had just acquitted and gave her a running commentary on the two co-defendants that were still being tried.

Police forces are finding their time increasingly being used to investigate messages on social media.

The man who sent obnoxious tweets to diver Tom Daley after he ‘only’ managed an Olympic bronze found himself the victim of Tweetmob after the diver RTd him and then got a knock on the door from the police who issued a warning for harassment.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recently issued interim guidance on when it would be suitable to prosecute such messages. However, even with that guidance in place, as more and more people sign up for such media, the caseload for police and the court can only increase.

And that is just the criminal side of the issue. The capacity for user to publish libels and breach others’ privacy on social media is huge.

A retweet takes just two button pushes, and as we saw from the Lord McAlpine libel case, several hundred people found that all too easy to do. It seems the retweeters are being let off with an apology, deletion of the tweet and a nominal donation to charity. Others who tweeted more are embroiled in actions launched by the peer.

There seems to be a perception among those who find themselves in difficulty that a post on social media is not like publication. Many will say things like it’s ‘just my opinion’ or that they were simply not aware that what they were doing was against the law.

But it is. Conversations confined to the saloon bar or the dinner party table are being committed to the internet where they are permanent and searchable.

And here lies the challenge for our lawmakers, and to an extent the publishing platforms that allow people to get into so much trouble.

It may be that well-publicised cases such as the purported Bulger killer pictures and the McAlpine libel may serve as a deterrent. If they do not have that effect then the DPP, CPS and the government perhaps need to examine the law to see whether they are content for ever-larger numbers of people to criminalise themselves in this way.

We cannot expect Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and others to police every item that is published by their users, nor would we want them to for well-founded reasons of freedom of speech. However, they could give better guidance to users when opening an account about the kinds of material that can get them into legal trouble.

If nothing is done, then the police, courts and, before long I predict, prisons are going to be busy.

If you are worried about your own, or your employees’ liability for what is published on social media, I run courses on how to make the most from these platforms, while avoiding potentially serious and costly legal problems. Contact me via the contacts page, above