Portfolio (Justice): Tweeting ban courts controversy

by Mar 26, 2012 No Comments

Is it time for Scottish courts to embrace new media?

The historic nature of Scots law is often cited as a source of pride and infl uence, but there is a growing push for the methods used to report on it to modernise. Social media has been used to help develop communication strategies across industries, and there is now a call to see it used more in criminal courts.
In England and Wales journalists no longer have to make an application to tweet, text or email from courts following guidance issued by Lord Judge, the lord chief justice, at the end of last year. That judgement resulted in the widespread use of tweeting at the Stephen Lawrence case.
Although the technology was used to report the sentencing of Tommy Sheridan’s perjury case in Scotland, it remains mainly prohibited and campaigners are demanding its use be extended to mirror the rights given to reporters south of the border.
The rules in England and Wales also now allow members of the public to tweet, but, unlike journalists and legal commentators, they must seek permission from the court in advance. Judges retain full discretion to prohibit any live text-based communication from court in the interests of justice, and permission from court may be withdrawn “at any time”. The guidance emphasises that anyone using electronic text is strictly bound by the existing restrictions on reporting court proceedings under the Contempt of Court Act 1925.
Lord Judge said: “A fundamental aspect of the proper administration of justice is open justice. Fair, accurate and, where possible, immediate reporting of court proceedings forms part of that principle.”
Judge said the “danger” of allowing proceedings to be tweeted “is likely to be at its most acute in the context of criminal trials, for example, where witnesses who are out of court may be informed of what has already happened in court and so coached or briefed before they then give evidence.”
He added there is also concern where legal discussions, in the absence of the jury, may appear on the internet and later be seen by jurors.
Photography and tape-recording in court remains strictly forbidden, although there are renewed calls – backed by Justice Secretary Ken Clarke – to allow fi lming of some court procedures.
Judge, in his guidance, said: “The normal, indeed almost invariable rule, has been that mobile phones must be turned off in court. There is however no statutory prohibition on the use of live text-based communications in open court.”
The Stephen Lawrence case, which concluded in January, was an example of how Twitter can change the nature of court reporting as people across the world read instant updates. But while many argue that the Lawrence case showed the benefi ts of social media, others have expressed concern that the accuracy of quotes may be diluted and that it can be diffi cult to contextualise in brief messages.
Until the Lawrence case there had never been such a moment of live coverage of a judge’s words in a high-profi le case. But the use of Twitter has divided many in the media. Dominic Casciani, the BBC’s home affairs correspondent, who tweeted from the Lawrence trial, said: “The media has to change to refl ect the way people are using media. A fundamental part of that is using Twitter.”
But Dominic Ball, who edits the 6pm news bulletin on BBC Radio 4, said: “My concern is, if the focus is getting information out on Twitter then it’s not on the nuances of the package. Do we want our correspondents to be storytellers or stenographers?” And Ian Kelcey, of the Law Society, believes caution must applied to ensure the cases are not “derailed” because of an inappropriate comment picked up on the internet.
In Scotland there has been frustration that rules have not been relaxed in the same way. It was ruled two months ago that special permission of the court is required to use devices, such as mobile phones and tablets. There was hope that there might have been a change when the trial judge in the Tommy Sheridan perjury case agreed that reporters could tweet the sentencing outcome. But Scotland’s Lord President, Lord Hamilton, said there still needs to be further consideration.
Cristiana Theodoli, a journalist and an organiser of a project to increase public understanding of the Scottish courts, blogged: “Our colleagues south of the border can now tweet from any trial or court case without having to ask for permission. Here in Scotland there are no such guidelines and journalists have to apply directly to a trial’s judge if they want to use social media to report.
“Yet while a good few have applied, not one single journalist has been given permission to tweet a full trial so far.” The project, Open Justice Week, started in late February and was designed to see people from all walks of life going to court and writing about their experiences and perceptions of the process, but it was hampered when permission to live tweet a court case was refused on its first day.
Theodoli added: “To be clear, we are not disappointed at the people involved, we accept in Scotland there has not been a single application to tweet from court during live proceedings granted and that judges want to ensure they look at all aspects.
“Yet we do wish the system would allow for more dialogue between those who, like us, are working to ensure the system remains transparent and accountable, and those who ensure due process is followed.”

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