Digitisation, and advances in new media technologies have created a number of problems for the legal environment. Witness, for example, the implications for intellectual property and the entertainment industry which have been created in response to the ease of reproduction and dissemination of material facilitated by easy online file sharing. Twitter sketch, under creative comms, shawncampbell
However, while this online world has created problems, these are outweighed by the possibilities and opportunities it has presented, not least in terms of democratisation and creating participative consumers. New software such as garage band means in some ways we are all musicians now and similarly the rise of the Smartphone and social media networks means that similarly we are all now journalists.
The latter development has been categorised as ‘citizen journalism’, a concept that has also been defined with phrases such as ‘guerrilla’ or ‘street’ journalism. This has been described as a ‘radical challenge to the professional and institutionalized practices of the mainstream media’ (Chris Atton, What is Alternative Journalism?, 2003). Essentially, it encapsulates the idea that these new technologies have made it possible for an amateur eyewitness to document an event and post this on the internet and, as such, play a more active role in the production and dissemination of news.
This is in many ways an empowering and exciting development – suddenly we are potentially given access to eyewitness accounts of key events, often contemporaneously, and without this being subject to the filter of the traditional news editor’s lens. This has allowed us to see material that we might never have had access to. From the protests in Turkey and Syria to the more banal such as footage of celebrities – and the novelty value of pioneers such as Zapruder who captured on home video the Kennedy assassination, has gone.
At the same time it has cast the role of traditional news media into some doubt, and also created difficulties in terms of objectivity, and provenance, that might previously have been assured and authenticated by professional journalists. Further, it has created problems in terms of the content of material that is disseminated by these citizen journalists and the potential implications of this.
The Attorney General recently announced measures to deal with one specific issue with this – the problem of tweeters and contempt of court. Previously the Attorney General has, in certain instances, issued advisory notices (or advisories) to the media detailing how these should approach the reporting of what might be termed sensitive trials. These have, however, been confidential in nature, and few in number, although it has been reported that the numbers have doubled in 2013 due to some high profile court cases.
On December 4 2013 the Attorney General’s office announced that in the future, guidance will be published publicly, and in the form of tweets, so limited to 140 characters although these will link back to a full warning on the website. This was an explicit admission that the current situation, where tweeters and users of other social media need to be cognisant of their responsibilities as users of social media and to be aware of the legal framework surrounding this.
The announcement came in the wake of Peaches Geldoff tweeting the names of two women implicated in the Ian Watkins conviction. An action that could have led to the identification of the victims and be very likely in breach of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. There had however been a number of examples of at worst irresponsible and at best unwitting use of social media throughout 2013, with the users often having no real understanding of the implications of a re-tweet or knowledge of the laws of defamation or malicious communication amongst others.
These Guidelines come off the back of the CPS Consultation on Prosecutions involving Social Media earlier in the year and illustrate that there is an increased awareness of the potential issues that arise from the use of these new technologies.
The new guidelines are however not without their critics. As regards to the CPS guidelines, there has been broader debate about whether the law is the appropriate vehicle to police such usage and as regards the AG Guidelines, there is a concern that actually issuing such notices might put the public on notice of sensitive trials that might otherwise have stayed under the radar, or even if such notices will get to the relevant people who might be about to tweet and then be put off by the AG’s advisory.
A quick check while writing this revealed that the AG’s twitter account (@AGO_UK) currently has 4,715 followers for example, compared to Peaches Geldoff’s (@peaches_g) which has 168, 506 and is rising all the time. Indeed much of the recent commentary has noted that whilst laudable in its own way, perhaps these mechanisms are not the best way to tackle the problem and, in fact, education, and self-regulation is the key.
Guy is a professor in the Westminster Law School at the University of Westminster, and formerly an adjunct Professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim, Norway. Follow him on Twitter @prof_guy_osborn