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.

Matthew Knott

Former Crikey media reporter

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."

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

  1. Clytie

    Really? What about a careful and considered 140 characters?

    Polden seems to assume that nobody can possibly have anything useful to say on Twitter. This does not degrade the medium as much as it does the public.

    We’re better off with Julie Posetti’s howto.

    Also, after a major mainstream-media and social-media campaign to get people involved in the victim’s case, it would defuse things a bit if the police/judiciary simply said, “You’ve helped us find this guy, but now we need you to sit back and let us do our job. We’ll keep you informed. For more info on how you can make your area safer (and how we can help you do it), see this URL.”

  2. zut alors

    It shouldn’t be too hard to find unbiased jury members – many people don’t use social media and many many more don’t read the Bolter.

  3. Dion Giles

    It defies belief that anyone who has decided that a defendant in ANY trial is guilty would rush in and risk invalidating the trial and getting the guilty person off the hook. Let’s hope there’s not too much of that sort of self-indulgent stupidity in the jury room. Many false convictions suggest that the hope is forlorn.

    At least in the case of those who try to nobble a trial by idiot public comment are subject to contempt of court laws which carry gaol penalties and that when people use “social media” to break the law they may not be as anonymous as they think.

  4. Liz45

    I agree! My heart goes out to Jill’s husband, family, work colleagues and friends. The rest is in the hands of the Law!

  5. dazza

    Bolts at it again crying freedom of expression and/or freedom of speech. Will he survive this one?

  6. David Allen

    An article on how other jurisdictions are dealing with this problem would be of interest.

  7. friedkrill

    No problemo, we’ll just set up an illegal detention centre off the coast and hold him indefinitely without trial, right?

  8. Mike Smith

    Like it or not, the concept of sub judice no longer stops people from commenting – the internet isn’t the only culprit. Acknowledge that this is so, and find another way of trying people.

  9. GLJ

    The idea that rationality should guide comments is expecting far too much from 73.25 % of the population . Clytie might be insulted by the thought that many comments are not thoroughly thought through. I myself & I expect it. No face to be identified , no real name to tag you with. No need to justify , verify or even attempt to appear sober.
    Its a great opportunity to play the big man and a smashing opportunity for Harry Hindsight to reign supreme.

  10. David Farrell

    If people on a jury can’t make a decision based on the evidence given at trial (regardless of 10M people’s personal opinions expressed via various Social Media platforms), they shouldn’t be jury members. This is 2012 – the Media over-saturation age – isn’t it?

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