Mediations: Philip Young

  • Mediations comments on public relations theory and practice, with an emphasis on social media and communication ethics. Philip Young is project leader for NEMO: New Media, Modern Democracy at Campus Helsingborg, Lund University, Sweden. All views expressed here are personal and should not be seen as representing Lund University or any other organisation.

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    How is a blogger, or even the person in charge of well funded on-line newspaper and media archives, actually meant to know that a particular unsolved crime has resulted in an arrest and a court appearance before a jury ?

    Why are juries somehow assumed to be incapable of ignoring rumours and irrelevant or unsubstantiated allegations, when a Magistrate or even a panel of High Court Judges is deemed, magically, to be immune from such influences ?

    Surely if a Judge does decide to impose reporting restrictions on a particular case before a jury, then there should be an authoritative website, with RSS/XML syndication feed, email lists etc. which publishes the minimal details required for responsible media and bloggers to temporarily censor their archives during the court proceedings, and to restore them after the verdict has been announced ?

    What about foreign based media and blogs ?

    In terrorism cases, where people are being held for up to 28 days, and if the Labour politicians get their way, 90 days or longer without even being charged, i.e. longer than the normal attention span / "news cycle" of the media, then where is the the Contempt of Court Act ?

    There is no control over all the media speculation, hype, leaks and unattributed briefings of "background details" from UK Police, intelligence and Government sources, and from foreign intelligence and government sources, which is then further commented on in the "blogosphere".

    Quite a bit to deal with there but here goes:

    1 How are you supposed to know...? The courts expect you to check. There is a defence in the Act if you don't know or have no reason to suspect an arrest has been made, but you have to have checked.

    2 Why are juries...? We might not agree that juries are less or more vulnerable than magistrates or judges, but that's the law, or at least, that's how judges have interpreted the law. If you want to avoid a prosecution culminating in an unlimited fine you have to operate within that law.

    3 Surely if a judge...? The restrictions of the Contempt of Court Act are not 'imposed by a judge' they automatically apply once a person is arrested. The UK judicial system does not take it upon itself to maintain e-mail lists of interested parties. It places the onus on those publishing to check before they do so. It's easy enough to do, pick up the phone or send an e-mail to the investigating police force.

    4 Foreign-based media and blogs are not bound by UK law. Yes, UK jurors have access to them, but the courts figure more of them have more access to UK media. See above re it's the law, work with it.

    5. In terrorism cases the rules are the same, once someone has been arrested then proceedings against them are active and so the Act starts to bind you.

    6 "There is no control..." Depends what you mean by control. No, most of the time there might not be, but now and again someone comes a cropper when they push too far and reveal too much before a trial.

    But, remember, Philip started this discussion with reference to ethical behaviour by bloggers. The underpinning ethic of the Contempt of Court Act is the preservation of the judicial process, the assumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial. These are fairly fundamental principles in free societies.

    Bloggers do themselves a disservice if they argue that their right to comment on whatever they want, whenever they want somehow trumps a person's right to justice.

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