Watch what you tweet

There are, I am led to believe, quite a few people out there who aren’t at all interested in football. It must be very annoying for them that even though the football season and the Euros are over (Olympic football doesn’t count), football is still on the front page of the newspapers, and not in a good way.

Last week, former England captain John Terry was found not guilty of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand and the FA is now under pressure to find him guilty of bringing the game into disrepute.  Quite right too.  Can you imagine using the sort of foul-mouthed language he admitted to in your place of work and getting away with it?

The headlines may all have been about the swearing, but the case has again highlighted why you need to watch what you tweet.  On the day Terry went to court, Rio Ferdinand, for the football-phobic among you he’s the brother of the alleged victim of Terry’s racist abuse, posted a tweet that seemed to be a comment on the trial.

More than a few people would have seen the tweet:  Ferdinand has over 3 million followers and more than 3,000 of them had retweeted it by 3pm.  Because Terry’s case was being tried by magistrates, who, like judges, are meant to be harder to influence than a jury would be, Ferdinand escaped any possible contempt of court charges.  However, it surely won’t be long before someone else isn’t so lucky.

Ferdinand, like most of us who aren’t proper journalists, probably has little or no idea about the law concerning contempt of court or that you can be found guilty of it without being anywhere near a courtroom.  Those involved in the traditional media are well versed in the issue, mostly know how to avoid it, and are punished severely if they transgress.  But now swathes of ‘citizen journalists’ could end up facing a prison sentence for what they’ve written.

Knowing what you can and can’t post on twitter is becoming something of a legal minefield.  While most of us will find it pretty obvious that tweeting racial abuse or threatening someone are unacceptable, who was to know that making a feeble and misdirected joke about blowing up an airport could get you a criminal record?

You might think that the 17 people arrested in connection with the alleged naming on Twitter of the victim in footballer Ched Evans’ rape case had it coming to them (and you’d be right) but what of the 75,000 who breached an injunction by disclosing the identity of yet another footballer, Ryan Giggs, who’d been caught with his fingers in the cookie jar?

Fortunately for them they were probably spared prosecution because of sheer numbers.  Even so, Giggs’ lawyers applied for an order to force Twitter to name them so you cannot rely on hiding behind a cloak of anonymity online.

At the other end of the scale, there are those who seem to think their identity will actually protect them.  Joey Barton, another footballer (is there a pattern here, or is it just me?) commented on the Terry case and again escaped contempt charges by the skin of his teeth because the case was not held before a jury.

Barton claimed he was a martyr of free speech, when in fact what he was doing was jeopardising one of the pillars supporting free speech, the right to a fair trial.  Causing a trial to collapse by creating a ‘substantial risk of serious prejudice to active proceedings’ is not big and it’s not clever (it’s quite possible that neither is Barton).  It is, on the other hand, expensive and a serious impediment to justice.

Barton and Ferdinand are not the only ones who don’t know what they are doing.  Journalists, who should know about these things, have been walking a fine line for years and sometimes they cross over it, as the Sun and the Mirror did when they were fined for contempt over their coverage of the arrest of Chris Jefferies, an early suspect in the murder of Joanna Yeates.

Another journalist found himself facing jail after naming a juror on Twitter and tweeting about a legal argument as a witness was giving evidence under oath when the jury wasn’t present during the trial of ex-Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp (yes, more football).  In response, the judge banned the use of Twitter and ‘live text’ during the trial.

This case involved a sports and not a legal journalist.  All the same, it does seem to throw into question the guidance on using Twitter in court, which requires members of the public to get permission to send live tweets but presumes ‘that a representative of the media or a legal commentator…does not pose a danger of interference to the proper administration of justice’.

It’s not terribly clear who exactly is a legal commentator.  Am I one?  Possibly.  Do I know more about contempt of court than Jo Public?  Probably.  But either way I’d be nervous about doing it.  Even experienced journalists can find it daunting.  Steven Morris, a reporter who covered the Vincent Tabak trial both on Twitter and for the Guardian, wrote that ‘before I tweeted the guilty verdict, I double-checked that I had heard it correctly with a friend from a rival newspaper’.

Having said all that, tweeting from court is a valuable way of opening up the justice system and demystifying it for the general public.  For too long most people’s perception (including mine) has been coloured by what they see on tv, and while tweets alone aren’t going to dispel the myth, for example, that UK judges use gavels, it has to be a start.

But the judiciary, and the government, cannot just adopt a piecemeal approach to open justice in the Internet age.  Allowing tweeting, and letting cameras into courts, are moves in the right direction, but as Ferdinand and Barton’s recent brushes with contempt of court show, the public also need to be educated about the importance of a right to a fair trial and how they can put that at risk.

Ignorance of the law may be no defence, but those responsible for upholding the rule of law also have a duty to inform and educate.  Otherwise they’ll just be scoring a spectacular own goal.

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