The attorney general is to publish guidance on Twitter to help prevent social media users from committing a contempt of court by commenting inappropriately on criminal cases. It is designed to make sure fair trials take place.
Anyone commenting about a case or defendant in a way that could prejudice a trial could be prosecuted for contempt and imprisoned.
The guidance which is already available to the media will now be publicised for all. Facebook and Twitter are publications subject to the same laws that in practice used to apply only to the mainstream media. The guidance will warn people about the legal consequences of commenting in a way that could be construed as prejudicial to a court case or anyone involved in that case.
This move has been prompted by a number of recent events. Some twitter users have more following and influence than the largest newspapers, thus resulting in incorrect facts and inappropriate comments being shared with thousands.
Three men used social media to breach a worldwide injunction – the attorney general prosecuted them for using Twitter and Facebook to publish photographs purporting to be of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, murderers of the toddler James Bulger, as grown ups. The injunction prevented publication of any material that could identify the two killers.
Peaches Geldof experienced difficulties when she carelessly tweeted the names of the mothers of the two babies who were abused by rock star Ian Watkins – police are investigating as the tweets identified protected parties.
We live in a world where social media users have no hesitation in airing their views, which can go viral in an instant. Furthermore, there seems to be a public misconception that the web is a place where we can exercise complete freedom of speech free from any civil and criminal law. This is not the case.
There will be hope that this move will ensure cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online – and will also bring more openness to the government dealings with the media so that both sides can be accountable to the public for their actions.
The advisories will be published on the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) section of the gov.uk website and also through the AGO’s twitter feed – @AGO-UK.
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