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Sep 28, 2012

Jill Meagher case: Bolt, Twitter users warned on comment

Social media is abuzz about the murder of Jill Meagher and the man accused of killing her. But media law experts warn people should be careful about what they say.

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The family and former colleagues of Jill Meagher have urged social media users not to publish prejudicial statements about the man charged with the rape and murder of the ABC employee because of fears they could impact on a future trial.

Media law experts have also warned that social media users — even though they have no training in media law — could also be sued for defamation or contempt of court over comments about the case posted on blogs, Facebook or Twitter.

Since the arrest of a 41-year old man overnight, several Facebook groups have been created attacking the accused killer — including one calling for his public hanging. Photos of the accused man have been published, as have comments assuming he is guilty of the crime. Highly-read conservative News Ltd commentator Andrew Bolt this morning posted a link to a blog containing information about the accused man’s background.

Mark Polden, one of Australia’s foremost media law experts, says such commentary has potentially dire consequences for the administration of justice and should be avoided.

“It’s not unfathomable that there could be such a conflagration, such a firestorm of social media commentary about a particular case that an application could be made that an individual cannot get a fair trial,” he said. “Individuals need to ask themselves: does what I’m doing have the potential to interfere with a fair trial? Could my sense of moral outrage lead to someone not being able to get a fair hearing?”

According to Polden, the most important no-go areas in cases that may be heard before a jury are:

  • Commentary on the guilt or the innocence of the accused
  • Details of prior criminal convictions or charges
  • The publication of photos of the accused.

“The prudent view is that from the moment of arrest people are under the protection of the courts,” Polden told Crikey. “When a matter is sub judice [under judgement] you should limit yourself to objective facts of what has occurred.” Expressions of grief and anger — as well as debate about issues raised by a case (such as public safety) — are also acceptable.

The publication of photos of the accused is problematic because they could influence witnesses in their identification.

Polden says it is unlikely an individual Twitter or Facebook user with no public profile would be pursued over contempt of court or interfering with the administration of justice — particularly if the content is quickly removed by the social networking sites. The key question is whether the material would interfere with the case as a “matter of practical reality” rather than as a “remote possibility”.

That’s why he says high-profile commentators like Bolt should be particularly cautious.

“He has a lot of followers and there’s a risk he may have put himself in a difficult position if he’s directed people to material that is adverse to someone under the court’s protection,” Poulden said.

In March 1993 Alan Jones and 2UE were fined $77,000 after the broadcaster’s on-air comments caused the trial of a policeman to be aborted.

ABC Lateline reporter Hamish Fitzsimmons this morning tweeted that spreading information about the accused is not in anyone’s interest, as did the Victoria Police. According to ABC reporter Simon Cullen, Meagher’s husband Tom Meagher has also warned that negative comments on social media sites may hurt legal proceedings.

Journalism educator Julie Posetti tweeted a useful guide for those confused about what can, and cannot, be published.

While acknowledging Twitter and Facebook could do more to educate users about these issues, Polden rejects statements made earlier this year by UNSW academic Catharine Lumby that sub judice laws are out of step with modern technology and need to be reformed.

“People should think about the presumption of innocence and the importance of a fair trial and whether the public interest of someone spewing out 140 characters off the top of their head trumps those things.”

Matthew Knot —

Matthew Knot

Crikey media editor

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23 thoughts on “Jill Meagher case: Bolt, Twitter users warned on comment

  1. Madonna

    Understandably Jill Meagher’s death has angered a nation. It feels personal somehow even though statistically many ordinary Australians disappear daily without a trace. An outpouring of emotion on social media exemplifies the extent this event has affected people. I think the moderators have behaved responsibly by posting instructions for the public to understand when sub judice begins and ends so not to prejudice the outcome and due process is seen to be done.
    My cat went missing for a few days on Sunday 23 September and I was beside myself with grief and loss (since found him). I could only imagine the anxiety Mr Meagher was living through not knowing his wife’s whereabouts. Hearing the news Jill had been raped and murdered brought up my own issues of being a survivor of rape and loss of a partner under different circumstances. This event has also been a trigger for the memory of Anita Cobby who was abducted, raped tortured and murdered. As a ‘dark figure’ statistic – unreported rape, this fact made me think about the women who’ve spoken out in the media since Jill’s disappearance and discovery who remembered being approached by this male person and yet hadn’t reported his dodgy behaviour to police. Maybe people need to think about the bigger picture.
    The radio broadcaster who was a close friend of Jill’s said, “We shouldn’t get three locks on our doors or install CCTV …it was random”. I ask…was it? Yes he was opportunistic, but the signs were there it would be someone, for example, according to news reports he had attempted to intercept a well known comedian on her bicycle.
    This person was caught by police because of CCTV cameras. I am an advocate of CCTV. Without footage how long do you think Jill’s body would have lain in that shallow grave? The daily torment of her husband and family not knowing what happened to her and tortured by the worst case scenarios being played out in their minds.
    I haven’t read anything about the alleged murderer on any social media(too emotional)and because the thought of a person acting out in that manner sickens me. I think crime prevention is a valid argument for more CCTV cameras.
    In Jill Meaghers case, I’m glad for her and her family there was CCTV installed. I agree with authorities and believe it played an integral roll in identifying capturing and detaining this alleged killer. He is no longer a threat to society because of an early arrest. The court hearing and trial in 2013 will help with closure and a process the Morecombe family have been denied to date.

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