Needles on top of haystacks

[Originally published on 12th April 2016]

How should courts be reported in the digital age? It’s a question that’s been preoccupying me for a number of years. My understanding of the technology, law and potential reforms are constantly challenged as I encounter new examples and people with varying experiences in different areas of legal work. For example, Penelope Gibbs of Transform Justice has drawn my attention to important work on the rights of children involved in judicial processes.

This week I’ve been looking at the ruling in BBC & Eight Other Media Organisations, R (on the application of) v F & D [2016] EWCA Crim 12 (11 February 2016), published following the conviction and sentencing of two 15 year old defendants for the murder of Angela Wrightson in December 2014.

In an unusual order issued by the Court of Appeal, the media was prohibited, until the verdicts in the criminal trial or further order, from placing reports on Facebook profile pages, and was instructed to disable the comment facilities on any report of the criminal trial. This was to prevent the media giving prominence to public comments on their Facebook pages – which the trial judge Globe J described as placing ‘a lot of needles’ on top of a haystack – and risk prejudicing proceedings.

In a piece for the Justice Gap (re-published on the Transparency Project) discussing the case I argue that our contemporary systems for judicial information control are lacking and muddled with serious consequences for freedom of expression, which affects both the public and media right to impart information, and the right to receive information.

I made a similar point in a paper co-authored with Henry Irving for History and Policy, looking at the Incedal terrorism-related trials in 2014 and 15.

We need more guidance and clarity on how open courts should look, given the reality of digital and hybrid media of the 21st century. This will help us design fairer and more practical systems that give appropriate weight to and recognition of important rights: not only freedom of expression and open justice, but also those relating to the welfare of children, private and family life and the rehabilitation of offenders.

Further reading

 

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