As you read this, a new method of court reporting is being pioneered at the Federal Court in Sydney — by Tweeps.

The lawyers at the bar table, the litigants and even some court officials are following the stream of bite-sized chunks of reportage from ZDNet’s Liam Tung and The Australian’s Andrew Colley.

At times, a post can even provoke an open chuckle in court. The feed, which began last week and continues today, can be seen here.

I understand that the judge in the case, Dennis Cowdroy, is well aware of the Twittering, and so far has done nothing to stop it. Indeed, it is hard to see how the court could possibly object, providing the Twitterers are fair and accurate.

What is the legal difference between this and a reporter dashing in and out of court to file updates for radio or the web? Nevertheless, it underlines the key innovation that is upon professional journalists — the fact that anyone can publish news and views to the world. If journos can do this, what is to stop the litigants or people in the public gallery from doing likewise?

At the same time as the reporters are Twittering, people outside the court room are interacting with them, commenting on their posts, offering their own points of view. There is no reason why someone inside the court room couldn’t respond if they thought the reporters had got it wrong. And the whole process is visible to anyone in the court room with a mobile phone or a laptop.

Federal Court spokesman Bruce Phillips this morning declined to comment on the practice.

And what is the attitude of the media organisations? We can expect new and cool organisations such as  ZDNet to be up with the latest, but is The Australian comfortable with the fact that  Colley is providing more up-to-date coverage on Twitter than for the newspaper’s own platforms?

This morning I sent a Twitter Direct Message to Colley, who was sitting in court Tweeting like mad at the time. He Twittered back, declining to comment on behalf of the paper, but emphasising that reporting by Twitter was not new. In a succession of messages (Twitter sets a limit of 140 characters) he said:

“The only novel part is mostly a result of opportunity provided by the case. It was quite spontaneous. It wasn’t really thought out. It was a suggestion from a colleague and then it just had such a great response we kept on.”

Just today, The Australian has a story about the attempt to develop policies on staff use of social networking tools and blogging, after a Queensland Courier Mail sub-editor lost his job over a comment on his blog.

I have covered the issue of journalistic use of Twitter on my blog here and here and here.

It is true that The Australian is not new to Twitter. Caroline Overington famously (in Twitter land in any case) provided coverage of the aftermath of Black Saturday’s bushfires on Twitter. Other mainstream reporters have reported via Twitter before.

The case being Twittered is of great interest to new media followers, being a landmark copyright hearing brought by the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) against Australia’s third largest internet service provider, iiNet. Read a summary and timeline of events here.

AFACT acts of behalf of a collection of movie studios and Channel Seven. They accuse iiNet of effectively authorising its users to breach copyright by turning a blind eye to the use of websites and services that provide free “pirate” content.

If AFACT succeeds, other internet service providers in Australia and around the world can expect a flood of claims. Following the case blow-by-blow is therefore of considerable interest to many people and big businesses.

So far as court reporting is concerned, the question would have to be — where will the courts draw the line? If live Twittering is OK — subject to the normal rules of contempt — why not live streaming? It is a question considered by Stilgherrian here.

And while the issues may be manageable in a civil case, what about criminal cases? Will action be taken to make sure jurors are not checking the feed on their mobile phones in court breaks? What will the limits of commentary be?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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