Seven deadly sins of court reporting

COURT reporters, what are they then?

Well you may ask, because if you believe reports of the industry, they are a dying breed.

But then, they were dying back in the days I was numbing my backside on the press bench of Wrexham Magistrates Court as a wet-behind-the-ears junior reporter on the Evening Leader.

It is true that as the regional press has de-staffed, sorry, management-speak, cut jobs, increasingly the dedicated court reporter posts have decreased.

But the courts do still get reported, and my first editor, Reg Herbert, who would demand ‘every cough and spit’ from Wrexham Mags, I still believe that they are the best free show in town. All human life is there and it is no coincidence that Dickens was a court reporter, his novels populated by the characters he came across in the courts.

If you are a junior reporter heading to court for the first time, or a blogger who has spotted a gap in the market, here are seven deadly sins all court reporters should avoid…

  1. Don’t use your mobile phone. You can, usually, use your phone to file copy by email, or to text your newsdesk. The courts have been told that this should generally be allowed, and only in special circumstances should it be forbidden. If you have your phone turned on, make sure it is switched to silent. One reporter was more than a little embarrassed when, during the sentencing of a murderer, his phone went off playing a rendition of The Gay Gordons
  2. Don’t use your mobile phone as a camera. That souvenir selfie of your first day as a court reporter could see you spending your first day in the cells below. Photography during court proceedings is against the law, as various notices around the court will tell you. Taking a photograph with the court administration’s permission – such as of a retiring magistrate in an empty courtroom for a feature – would be fine. Thanks to Twitter follower Tom Webb for reminding me, you’re not allowed to use a phone, or any other device to record the proceedings either. Get a notebook, pen, and learn shorthand.
  3. Don’t bow. You will see officers of the court – the lawyers and ushers, bowing to the judge or magistrates as they leave or enter the court. I have seen some court reporters do this, but there really is no need. You are not involved in the proceedings, you are just reporting them.
  4. Don’t be intimidated. Court staff are overworked and can, sometimes, be less than helpful. Remain studiously polite, but insist on the information that you need in order to produce an accurate report of proceedings. Courts are under instruction from the Ministry of Justice to make court lists available, so make sure they give them to you when you need them.
  5. Don’t forget your law. You’re not expected to know the criminal law inside out, but you needs to know the basics for court reporting. Libel, specifically privilege defences for court reporting; contempt of court; reporting restriction on preliminary hearings; anonymity rules for children and sexual offences to name but a few. This is where I come in, I run training sessions on all this and I’m cheaper than getting a massive fine or paying libel damages. See my training page for details of the courses I run.
  6. Don’t forget court reports are about people, not the process. Don’t get caught up in the terminology or the complexities of the law. Tell the human story about the offence, the perpetrator, the witnesses and the victims.
  7. Don’t use a picture of a gavel to illustrate a court report. This is a courtroom, not an auction and they don’t use them in UK courts, ever. I’ll laugh at you if you do, as will the Twitter account @igavels, which was set up to highlight such abuse.

Why the media should not back Brexit

THIS is a hard sell, I know, but Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, should love the European Union.

Every day, he, along with every other UK newspaper editor, should pen a love letter to the bureaucrats of Brussels.

They should be praying fervently that on June 23 we vote Remain and stay in the EU.

Why? Because it is the only thing keeping him, and every other editor, website owner and blogger out of jail.

Anyone who allows third party content on a site under their control ought to give thanks we are in the EU where they are under the protection of the catchily-titled Electronic Commerce Directive 2000/31/EC.

This is a very useful bit of Brussels bureaucracy that was enacted to protect those providing platforms for others to access internet publication. So it protects ISPs and it has always protected newspaper forums – where readers get to express an opinion online about content.

Now, I don’t know whether you’ve ever been ‘below the line’ on a Daily Mail story, but it can be a very, very strange place to be. On stories involving race, gender, immigration and refugees, it is like lifting a rock on society and seeing the ugly stuff scuttling about underneath.

And this is not behaviour confined to the Daily Mail either. Recently The Guardian analysed comments made on stories on its site and while much was positive, there was nevertheless a range of comment that was ‘crude, bigoted and vile’.

The directive also protects any website with a comment function and it protects bloggers like me when people comment on my posts. As I said, enormously useful and given to us by the EU.

Often the main concern about online forums is the threat of libel and we do have our own homegrown bit of law that protects us in the Defamation Act 1996. The defence of innocent publication says that as long as you did not know the material was there and removed it promptly when notified, you do not have a liability.

But this very good bit of law only protects us against libel, nothing else.

Now, let’s delve ‘below the line’ again in a newspaper forum. You will soon see all manner of legal liability is to be found there, not just libel.

You can find contempt of court, harassment, inciting hatred, breaches of privacy and copyright violation to name but a few. Now, to be prosecuted for some of these offences it would need to be shown that we had some form of intent to commit an offence. But with some offences, such as contempt of court, there is no such requirement – if you’ve got the content on your site, you’re guilty.

The beauty of the EU directive is that it protects you from all legal liability for user-generated-content, not just libel.

At the moment if you are hosting a site which attracts content like that, you are protected by the EU Directive, so long as you are acting as a ‘conduit for publication’. If you are not actively editing or pre-moderating the content then you do not have any legal liability for it unless you leave it up on your site once you have been notified of it.

This defence also protects platforms like Twitter and Facebook against liability for anything posted by their users.

So anyone running a ‘lively’ forum better hope we stay in the EU.

If we don’t, then start hiring moderators, lots of them.

Reporting restrictions in Ambridge

PITY the poor court reporter on the Borsetshire Echo.

After years numbing their backside on the narrow press benches of that farming county’s courts, faithfully recording drink driving, poaching and a bit of argy-bargy of a weekend outside The Bull, they suddenly have a much bigger story on their hands.

You don’t have to be an Archers fan to know this tale of country folk has taken a sinister turn recently, culminating in Helen Titchener, nee Archer, plunging a knife, twice, into her abusive husband, Rob, almost causing a demise that many fans would have deemed rather timely.

The storyline, which has been building for a couple of years, has done a great deal to raise awareness of domestic abuse and the sort of ‘coercive control’ exerted by Rob on Helen. The reaction from the public has been extraordinary, summed up by the amazing response to an appeal launched by Paul Trueman, @paultrueman74 on Twitter.

He set about raising £1,000 for the charity Refuge, which helps victims of domestic violence. He set up a Justgiving page and the sum raised now stands at more than £127,000 .

Rob survived, Helen is behind bars awaiting trial, and her brother Tom has had a characteristically good whinge about the press coverage of his sister’s situation.

But what can the media report, if anything? Tom, while perusing the newsstands on the Sunday after Rob’s near-death, was horrified at the coverage – “They’re not meant to print anything,” he said, setting the teeth of this old court reporter on edge, and not just because of his shrill tone.

I doubt very much that Helen’s alleged offence would have attracted the attention of any national newspapers at this stage. She didn’t kill him, and there is nothing about her, or Rob, which would normally attract the attention of a national newspaper news desk, in my opinion. But let’s give the scriptwriters that bit of licence, as it allowed Tom to give the redtops a bit of a kick, which always plays well to middle England of a Sunday as they listen to the omnibus edition of The Archers, while reading their….er….redtops.

What then, are the rules on reporting this offence?

Firstly, when Helen was arrested, that means that proceedings in the case had ‘become active’ – the judicial ball is rolling and at some point in the future, Helen might face judge and jury. That means that any reporter working on the story ought to keep a weather-eye on the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This says that once proceedings are active you must not publish or broadcast anything which creates a ‘substantial risk of serious prejudice, or serious impediment’ to the proceedings.

So, what does that phrase mean? Is it a blackout on all coverage of the case?

Well no. The Contempt of Court Act was brought in to substantially replace the old common law of contempt, which was too draconian, and the new statute was intended to strike a balance between rights to a fair trial, and rights to freedom of expression.

So, as long as any detail you publish is not seriously prejudicial, then it should not cause you any difficulty. Note that prosecutions for contempt have to be authorised by the Attorney General, and cannot be taken against you by Borsetshire’s barmy magistrates, or even crown court judges – they have to refer it to the AG.

The sort of details that would be prejudicial are:

  • PIctures, E-fits, descriptions or video of a defendant ‘where identity is at issue at trial’ ie the accused is saying ‘it wasn’t me guv’nor’. There may be an ID parade and if you have published a photo, that reminds the eyewitness who to pick out, and it destroys the admissibility of their evidence. The Sun was fined £80k for this, and its then editor Kelvin MacKenzie was fined £20k. This is clearly not the case with Helen, but we often don’t know that for certain in the early stages of an inquiry, so you have to err on the side of caution.
  • Assumptions of guilt. Helen is not yet ‘the attempted murderer’ it is an allegation and can only be reported as such.
  • Evidence that will be disputed at trial. Be it Helen’s threat to kill her husband on Maundy Thursday, or Kirsty’s tales of Rob’s abuse that you have unearthed, you cannot report them yet. They cast the defendant and the victim in alight that might sway a juror, so should be avoided until the trial concludes.

Proceedings remain active until sentence according to the Act, but in practice you can run your background articles as soon as Helen is acquitted and carried shoulder-high from court…..sorry, or found guilty. Once either of these things happen, the jury is out of the equation and can no longer be influence by what you publish.

When Helen appears in court a different set of restrictions apply to what can be written. In the preliminary hearings before trial a report is mean to be restricted to:

  • Name of the court and magistrates
  • Name, age, address, occupation of the defendant
  • Names of the lawyers involved
  • Charges or a summary of them
  • What the court decides about the case – adjournment, allocation for trial etc
  • Arrangements for bail – residence, curfew etc
  • Whether legal as was granted

Pretty thin stuff, very procedural, as you can see. But if the Borsetshire Echo’s court reporter has anything about her, or him, they won’t let those restrictions get in the way of giving their reader a taste of court.

Descriptive passages detailing the oak-panelled grandeur of Felpersham Magistrates Court will be fine. Describing the organic, tie-dyed t-shirt that Helen wore for her first appearance will be ok too. Her mother, Pat, weeping in the public gallery, sitting beside Tony wringing his hands, again, will not be a breach of this law. What would be a problem here would be reporting any detail of prosecution evidence against Helen. A potential juror might read it and be more likely to find her guilty as a result.

However, if Helen’s counsel Anna Tregorran QC, wants to state during proceedings, or after, on the steps of the court, that her client would be vehemently denying the charges and expected to be acquitted on due course, that would be OK to report. Jurors are told to presume the defendant is not guilty and Ms Tregorran’s statement is merely affirming that. However, if Rob’s venomous mother Ursula, were to make a statement proclaiming that Helen was bang to rights, it’s a fair cop, she’s going down – that would not be allowed.

I also foresee a potential problem when this case comes to trial, in the shape of Helen’s young son, Henry. He witnessed the entire incident and will be called as a witness at trial. In such a case it would be very likely that the court would choose to anonymise him using a Section 45A order of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence act 1999. This would make reporting his evidence a little difficult.

The law says that any detail which allows someone to identify him is an offence. In such a case, even his age might be seen as an identifying detail. Caution is needed, and if in doubt the Echo’s court scribe ought to get some guidance from the judge on what details about Henry are likely to attract his ire.

One thing to note. Reports of trial proceedings are protected against a libel action by a defence called absolute privilege, for a fair, accurate report published at the same time as  the proceedings. So when, as I fully expect, Anna Tregorran shreds Rob Titchener in the witness box, revealing him as an abuser and a rapist, the Echo is free to splash that across its front without fear of Rob going to law.

I hope the Echo’s staff find this useful. If the editor is reading, I could squeeze a law refresher for the staff in before trial commences.

All of the above assumes that the scriptwriters aren’t going to throw us a curve ball and have Eddie and Joe Grundy spring her from a prison van and hide her away in the wilderness of rural Borsetshire. We live in hope.

They’re off – quick guide to the rules of election reporting

THIS is going to be an interesting few weeks as we approach the general election and coverage will be scrutinised by the various parties as never before.
If you want to stay the right side of the law here is a quick guide to the various law that could cause you difficulty.

This is an amended post I ran five years ago on an old blog, but a lot of people found it useful, so it bears repetition.

Firstly, libel, it’s always with us, but elections are that special time when candidates lay into each other with abandon and occasionally say something defamatory. Remember it is no defence to say you are simply reporting what someone else said (but see below). Anyone who repeats a libel is potentially liable for it and a defamed candidate may decide to sue the relatively wealthy media outlet that has repeated the libel rather than the relatively poor opponent who originated it. Beware accusations of racism, fascism and plain old lying.
 
However, if you are reporting remarks made at a public meeting, or press conference, then you have a defence of qualified privilege, so long as you are reporting fairly, accurately, on a matter of public interest and without malice. Don’t get overly worked up about malice – the malice of the speaker does not ‘infect’ your report of their speech and has never yet destroyed a defence of qualified privilege mounted by a media organisation in these circumstances.
 
False statement about election candidates. Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes it a criminal offence “to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate, if the purpose of publishing the false statement is to affect how many votes he/she will get.”
 
The false statement must be statement of fact, not opinion. It is a defence to show at the time of publication you had reasonable grounds for believing the statement to be true. A journalist who published false claims that a candidate was homosexual was fined £250 in 1997. Note that it is no longer defamatory to say that someone is gay (unless it implies they are dishonest by concealing their true sexuality) but it could contravene this law. The reason being that if the voters included those whose religious beliefs cause them to hold anti-gay views, then such a statement could affect turnout for the candidate.
 
The 1983 Act also makes it an offence to publish a false claim that a candidate has withdrawn from the election if you know the claim is false and it is being made to promote the election of another candidate.
 
Impartiality of broadcasters. The Ofcom code and BBC Editorial Guidelines have detailed guidance on achieving impartiality. Several radio stations have been fined by Ofcom after presenters declared political allegiance on air.
 
Exit polls. Section 66A of the 1983 Act makes it an offence to publish the results of an exit poll before polling has finished. The reason being if the exit poll reveals a runaway winner it may discourage people from voting an thwart the democratic process. It is also an offence to publish a prediction of an election result if it is based on such a poll.
Those using social media to gauge how people are voting need to be especially careful here. It might be technically possible to make predictions based on hashtagged tweets etc and to map how the vote is going. Make sure you do not publish anything based on these metrics on election day before the polls close.
 
Election counts. Admission to the count is the responsibility of the returning officer. There is no national media policy, so best make contact early to make sure of arrangements for the night.
 
Social Media. This election will be as hard-fought on the battlefields of Twitter and Facebook as it is on the street and we have already seen the early skirmishes.
While the behaviour of the various parties may leave much to be desired, don’t get dragged into it as a journalist. The laws above apply just as much to your social media posts as they do to your print or website publication.
Enjoy the race, but let’s be careful out there.

Tailor-made T&Cs for your website

A NUMBER of clients have contacted me recently for advice on website terms and conditions.

There are a couple of reasons for this – firstly, the changes brought in by the Defamation Act 2013 mean that in some circumstances a web forum host might need to pass on a user’s details to a libel claimant; secondly, well-written, tailored T&Cs can make the job of hosting and moderating online debate a lot easier.

The Defamation Act reforms include a new defence for online publishers hosting discussion, debate, reader reaction etc. What this means is that if a reader who posts something onto your site wants to defend what they have posted, then the legal action is between them and the claimant, potentially excluding you as the host.

For this to happen effectively you need to be able to give the poster’s details to the claimant. So there are issues about how people register for your site, and how you make them aware of the legal risks they may incur.

However, in informing them about these risks, you do not want to scare users away, or impinge upon their legitimate free expression on your site.

It is a tricky path to follow.

I write custom-made T&Cs for websites, including plain-English guidance on how to avoid the major legal pitfalls while using such a site.

The guidelines are useful in helping users understand their rights and obligations. A clear set of T&Cs are also very helpful in resolving disputes that can arise between posters.

If you would like to discuss how I can help your website, please contact me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Defamation Act 2013 – in force now, advice to website operators

I have been receiving a number of requests for guidance and training about the effects of the Defamation Act 2013.

The Act introduces a number of changes, but website operators are particularly interested in the impact it could have on them and the people who provide user-generated content for their sites – their community.

The Act, and in particular, its Section 5 defence changes the way in which websites respond to defamatory posts placed there by users. Whereas before a notice and takedown procedure, based on a European Union e-commerce directive, would evade liability on the part of the website, now in some circumstances, there is a requirement to give the claimant the details of who it was who posted the libellous material. However, if the poster is easily identifiable and contactable from details on the site, it may well be the operator need do nothing as the action lies between the claimant and the poster.

This shifts responsibility for defamatory posts from the host site onto the poster, which ought to reduce liability for websites. However, if a website operator wants to use the Section 5 defence and the poster details are not readily available, they need to comply with some tight deadlines, often just 48 hours, in responding to the claimant and giving them the details of who it was who posted the defamatory content.

So you may need to hand over details of your users – members of your community – to a libel claimant. This could change the nature of your relationship with your online community, many of who may be relatively unaware of the laws of libel and other legal risks they can incur.

Some websites are beefing up their registration procedures and T&Cs to take account of these changes, as well as offering guidance to their users on the main legal problems they may encounter. Others may want to stick to their original practice of takedown on notice. Deciding which procedure you want to adopt depends on the nature of your website and the conversations that it carries.

This is where I come in.

I have been writing guidelines for a number of organisations as well as providing training for moderators and community managers in the Defamation Act 2013 and other laws relevant to their role.

If you want more information about the services I provide in this area, contact me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Five laws editors need to know better than their staff

BEING an editor places great demands on your time.

You might well have arranged training for your staff, but have you thought about your own? When was the last law refresher you attended?

You might reasonably leave day-to-day spotting of legals to your newsdesk and subs, but in some cases it is you that will be held responsible when things go wrong.

Here, briefly, are five areas of law an editor really needs to know.

1 – Sexual offences anonymity
There is now a large number of offences which give anonymity to a victim as soon as a an offence is reported and that report can be to anyone, not just police. Relatively new offences like trafficking and voyeurism are catching journalists out because they do not realise they are sexual offences.

The consequences of breach are very serious, a prosecution under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992 – and the CPS will sometimes prosecute both the paper and the editor. Conviction will result in a criminal record for a sexual offence.

2 – Contempt of Court

The law isn’t new, it’s been around since 1981, but what is new is Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s willingness to prosecute.

He said when he took office that prejudicial publication was a concern and he has been true to his word in allowing prosecutions for contempt.

They can still, theoretically, jail editors for contempt (last time that happened was the editor of The Mirror in 1949 over converage of the Haigh Acid Baths Murders) Nowadays they give the editor a personal fine, as well as the paper. Fines are unlimited, but tend to be in the tens of thousands of pounds.

Publication of material which would not have resulted in prosecution five years ago, is now being being taken to court.

3 – Defamation Act 2013

Libel remains your most potentially expensive problem. The new Act will probably be implemented from summer 2014. It contains new defences and new limits on how claimants can take action against you. You and your staff need to understand the changes it introduces.

4 – Bribery Act, RIPA, Misuse of Computers

The laws we saw Leveson explore at some length. You may well be taking on young, technically adept journalists. They, and you, need to know the legal limits on use of their technical expertise in obtaining stories. Likewise, what is a bribe, who can be bribed and how to avoid a bribery charge?

5 – Copyright

The next big issue coming down the track I think. Journalists are magpies and tend to regard the Internet as a limitless source of free material, especially imagery. People posting pictures online seem to be becoming more aware of their legal rights over such material and we will, I think, start seeing actions for copyright breach in the near future for the sort of online pilfering reporters have regarded as safe up until now.

If the above has given you pause for though, I run in-house law refreshers for editors and their staff. All sessions are tailored to the individual publication concerned. If you would like to talk about training, drop me a line at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Media law refresher/intro days in London and Manchester

Law Refresher/Intro to Media Law

Tuesday June 18 and Tuesday July 16, The Space Centre, Judd Street, King’s Cross WC1H 9NT, 10am-4pm, Manchester, Tuesday, July 9, venue TBC, 10am -4pm

A one-day course covering the basics of media law that can affect anyone publishing in the UK either in print or online. It includes areas such as libel, contempt, reporting the courts, sexual offences, children, privacy&confidentiality, copyright and ethics in light of the Leveson report and recent decisions made by Parliament and the newspaper industry.

If you would like more information, or want to book a place on any of the courses, email me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

IF you want to find mistakes in papers look at the pictures.

The Sun on Sunday has just paid out in a libel settlement after running a story about a man discovering he was the son of Fred West – but the picture they printed on the front page was the man’s half-brother who was entirely unconnected to the serial killer. It has been reported that a five figure sum has changed hands as a result.

I’ve some sympathy for the Sun on Sunday, such things are all too easily done and let me share with you the story of one such disaster, which, sadly, I had a hand in. I’ve blogged this elsewhere on a previous occasion, but it bears repetition as it highlights the legal dangers of the photograph and its caption.

This is back in the days when I was a jobbing hack on the Daily Post and it was my turn to ‘do the calls.’

This was the round of phone calls made several times a day to the emergency services to see if there were any crimes, deaths, disasters or other human misery happening for us to report on. It was also in the days when such calls were made to human beings – usually a duty inspector in the police control room, or a desk sergeant at individual police stations. Since then these humans, who one could have a conversation with, have been replaced by pre-recorded ‘voicebanks’, which are a journalistic dead-end and should only ever be used as a starting point for a story by any reporter worth their salt.

Anyway, I digress, back to the sex and death. You see the virtue of talking to a human is that they do love a bit of gossip and so it was that morning when I made the call and was informed of a sudden death in a nearby market town, woman in custody as a result. Slowly, but surely, the story emerged.

It would seem the local brass band was a hotbed of illicit passion, and the alleged crime involved two of its members. She was 30, he was in his 60s, and after band practice they would adjourn to the local marshes in his roomy estate car where they would consummate their affair. Both were married.

The police were holding her as they believed she’d hit him in a lovers’ tiff, causing a fatal heart attack. She said he had died while they made love. The Daily Post at the time was intent on becoming the ‘Daily Mail of the North’ and for us the story had everything – sex, death, death caused by sex, and a brass band.

So, I set out hotfoot to the market town with a photographer, and crucially got to the bandmaster before word had spread of just how this bandsman had died. The family were letting people know of his death, but were, understandably, not sharing the grisly detail.

Most important, we got a photo of the band. Dead man, back row centre, and the bandmaster never queried it, but we got him to name every single band member, and there she was, in the front row – the, quite literally, femme fatale.

So, were were very happy with ourselves, we had the story, the picture, the whole lot and off to Liverpool it all went to be printed the next day in the Daily Post.

The next day, when I opened the paper, it was one of those moments as a reporter and you will all have them, when you close the paper, wanting what you see not to be true.

Because, on the front row far right there was a man in a wheelchair, and there was no-one sitting or standing behind him – what a designer would call ‘dead space’ a blank wall. So the man in the wheelchair was cropped off to neaten the pic. However, when the caption, which has already been written, reads: “Mrs X, fourth from the right,” the crop means that the identification moves along to the right. So instead of accusing the femme fatale of killing a fellow bandsman with her amorous attentions, we accused the 16-year-old schoolgirl sitting next to her.

So, I have some sympathy with the Sun on Sunday, as I said, it is easily done.

But if you do do it, then get it sorted quickly, which is precisely what the Daily Post did.

Firstly, we didn’t wait for a complaint. Eric Langton, who was on the DP newsdesk – one of the best news editors I’ve ever worked with, a real newsman, totally unflappable and a pleasure to work for – went straight round to the girl’s family with a letter of apology from the paper.

Her dad, you will understand, was not a happy man. Let’s face it, his daughter is 16 – she’s not on drugs, she’s not pregnant, not a tattooed death metal fan. She plays in a brass band for heaven’s sake, she is every dad’s vision of perfection, and here you have the Daily Post suggesting she kills elderly bandsmen with sex.

But, in typically civilised British fashion, he was polite with Eric and said that what action they took depended on how she reacted, she was at school and hadn’t seen the paper yet.

She arrived home, took one look at the Post…..and burst out laughing. She didn’t think anyone in the town would really think it was her, and didn’t think it would be taken seriously. So, they didn’t sue us. Nor did they want a correction, which they felt would just draw more attention to the story.

A close call, but a lesson that being straight with people and admitting your error, no matter how stupid it may make you look, can get you off the hook.

I’m not sure we would have been so lucky if it had happened now. Today as soon as it appeared on our website, her schoolmates would have Facebooked and Tweeted it to all and sundry, whereas we were just in print back then – chip-paper a day later – and I think that would put more pressure on the faily to take action and nail the lie of the story.

Oh, and the femme fatale? She was acquitted at trial.

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