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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.


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?

  11. SusieQ

    Andrew Blot (the misspelling is deliberate) will do anything to attract attention to himself, including ego-tripping at the expense of a murder victim and her family. What a sad individual.

  12. klewso

    I thought Blot was above the law – ’cause he’s a “journalist”?

  13. Demas

    That’s the trouble with giving any nut a Bolt. People should remember that in the UK earlier this year, police arrested and questioned seven men for the rape of a woman. Then they found that she was raped by a professional soccer player. The player, Ched Evans, was jailed for five years.

  14. 81dvl

    Very good work Crikey!

  15. 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.

  16. Venise Alstergren

    MATTHEW KNOTT @DAVID FARRELL: Suggestions that the Social Media can exercise restraint are futile. The plug has been pulled out of the bottle and the contents too big to replace.

    When a case is sub judice it might be realistic to bring in an interstate jury on local trials. And, if an Australia wide trial, using a jury from New Zealand. This would render prejudgement less likely, and would be easier on the taxpayers’ money than potential litigation. Hopefully a jury from WA or NSW wouldn’t have been exposed to the garbage that Andrew Boult (delete the vowel of choice) churns out.

  17. Venise Alstergren

    MIKE SMITH: See my comment @14. I’m still not on top of the reverse chronology thingy.

  18. terry galbraith

    Everyone is entitled to a trial free of bias. But, I suspect much of the public outcry is an expression of peoples’ disgust at the crime, stalking, violation of the victim and finally her brutal murder. Joe Public needs to ventilate its a natural and healthy thing to do. Would our lawyers prefer Joe to sit quietly and not be upset nay outraged? Many public expressions are raw emotions, fear and concern about our daughters, sisters, partners an mothers, not due process.

  19. Mark Stapleton

    It is an astute comment that refers to the casual blogger/tweeter as someone who may not be schooled in media law but isnt it a stretch to say of high profile broadcasters advised by their corporatewyers that “He may have unwittingly put himself in a difficult position”?

  20. Tim nash

    Great article, Andrew Bolt you always seem to knee deep in shitty journalism.

    I think that this particular murder has had an effect on people. It would be difficult to hold a tide back like that under any circumstances.


    @GeeWiz , and with Public outrage you might end up causing the case to abort and allow an alleged murderer to go free.

    The judge needs to find an impartial jury who has no pre-conceptions about the case, because despite what the baying mob might think, the truth is not a democracy.

  22. Anna Kae

    I can’t find the blog written by AB that contains a link to a blog about the alleged killer of JM.
    I suspect the blog was removed on legal advice and the author of this article probably needs to make an update to this article to advise readers of the link removal.

  23. Karen

    The defence has the right to apply for trial by judge alone. This will assist in circumventing the argument with respect to unfair prejudice. The judge as trier of fact and law is required to analyse the evidence and apply relevant legal principles before turning his/her mind to the question of whether he/she can be satisfied as to the guilt of the accused beyond reasonable doubt.


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