Trial by Twitter

Interesting piece in The Times on Monday about some jurors using Facebook to run polls on whether the accused in trials they are hearing are guilty or not. Rather puts a new spin on ‘throwing the book’ at someone. In a letter the next day Frances Quinn, author of the excellent ‘Law for Journalists’ pointed out that this was worrying evidence that jurors are making up their minds before hearing all the evidence. She went on to say that judges needed to ensure jurors understood clearly the nature of their duty, especuially as Contempt of Court carries the possibility of a prison sentence.

I’d like to add a couple of thoughts. First, the day the Quinn letter appeared I was in court with my latest batch of postgrad broadcast journalism students. Many of them opted to sit in on a murder trial, assuming it would be exciting. What they heard was lots of police evidence (and some cross examination) about pictures of the scene of the alleged crime. In the end even the judge ventured to suggest the jury had probably had enough and must be wondering if they were taking part in some kind of ‘spot the difference’ competition. To their credit the jury members stayed awake throughout – though I’m not sure I could say the same about the students! It underlined how much the system demands of jurors but God forbid we ever reach a stage where we believe it would be better to do without them.

Secondly, the whole business of Facebook polls, jurors doing online research and even Tweeting about ongoing cases, serves as further evidence that in the area of Contempt in particular the law is now well outpaced by social media. We saw it over super injunctions and we see it here. Judges have always adopted the view that juries are smart enough to put from their minds anything they might have read or heard about an offence – or even an alleged offender – in the pre-trial period. What weight, though, does that have in the light of the latest revelations about what some of the twelve good people and true might be up to?

If Tweeters and now jurors are flouting the law on Contempt how much longer can we justify the mainstream media being bound by it. I’m happy to stick to reporting restrictions whiledoing so ensures a fair trial on – and only on – the evidence heard by the jury. If they’re not taking the job seriously we may as well have a free for all. Back in 2006, in another Times piece, Magnus Linklater suggested that the Contempt of Court Act was ‘The law that was abolishing itself’. Who’d argue with that view now?