Guest post: Rebooting media law - Law Commission
Howard Walker, a frequent commentator on my blog, argues that education is the key to addressing breaches of media law in social media. A recent Law Commission consultation paper is seeking comment on such an approach. By Howard Walker
The Leveson Report is likely to bring about major changes in the way the traditional media goes about its business, whatever the final structure and the statutory or non-statutory status of the new independent press regulator.
But the recent Lord McAlpine case is just as much of a watershed for social media as those who thought they could tweet with impunity and be just a face in the crowd suddenly find themselves in the sights of a wrongly implicated peer of the realm.
Now the law is looking to shine a further spotlight into online activities.
Contempt for the law? The Law Commission, the independent body which keeps UK law under review and suggests potential reforms, has decided that the explosion in social media means it is high time that the law governing Contempt of Court had a reboot.
Contempt of court deals with behaviour which could affect court proceedings. This can cover everything from someone shouting obscenities in a court to publishing information which could make a trial unfair.
Why does this matter? Quite simply because, as with the McAlpine case, social media gives anyone the power to be a publisher, without having to have even heard of Contempt of Court, let alone passing exams about it.
If you tweet about so-and-so “looking guilty” or your blog mentions that the accused “has been done for this before”, you are in danger of being prosecuted for Contempt – a criminal offence which can see those convicted sent to prison.
The Law Commission fears that, despite directions from judges, jurors are increasingly going online to glean more facts about the case they are deciding on. In a recent case leading to the imprisonment of an over-zealous juror who decided to research the accused and tell her fellow jurors about his previous convictions.
Whilst the Commission’s primary focus is on jurors accessing material, it does want to see bloggers, Tweeters and other social media users become more responsible about what they put up online.
Cue more punishments and a crackdown on the bloggerati? Thankfully not.
Education, education, education In a very sensible move, albeit buried in the detail of a lengthy consultation paper, the Law Commission floats the idea of educating young people about the issue by teaching pupils about the importance and role of jury service.
A good start, but I would go further.
I think it is time to introduce ‘Netizenship’ classes into the National Curriculum.
I have commented before on this blog about the importance of getting a basic grasp of the law for anyone who uses social media.
When at least 90 per cent of teenagers have used social media and young people continue to be the group most prosecuted for incidents of online abuse, surely it makes sense to give young people an informed view of their rights and responsibilities as digital citizens. Those of us beyond school age could also do with some tuition – a ‘beginner’s guide’ online resource outlining the issues is certainly a must.
Balancing act Striking a balance between freedom of expression and the right to a fair trial or an unsullied reputation is never easy.
However, providing people with important guidance and essential information on what is at stake will make getting that balance right easier.
Who’s for school?
About Howard Walker Howard Walker is a former journalist turned communications professional who thanks McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists for passing his NCTJ Media Law exams. The views expressed are his own. Connect with Howard via Twitter @1howardwalker.