As I was quietly contemplating today’s first new blog post, one literally popped into my head. Well, ‘pop’ is not quite the right word, more like ‘screeched’.
I’m not joking. On the little housing estate where I live, it is quite sedate so loud noises really ring out. I heard the screeching of tyres, twice. Rushing to the window, like the neighbour from hell, I thought ‘right, I’ll clock who that was and talk to them or their parents’. I’m afraid I thought it was a young person going far too fast in a residential area.
As I live on a corner, I do get a lot of kids playing football outside as it’s very spacious. I don’t mind, makes the place sound lively but cars do need to be careful.
But I was wrong. A blue car shrieked round the corner and stopped at right angles to my home, right across the road and a guy opened the door and ran off, a second shimmied over from the driver’s side and ran after him. I thought ‘bloody hell, they’re leaving their car in the middle of the road’. Both men were black and, I’m ashamed to say, I thought ‘is it drugs?’ as I realised I was witnessing the aftermath of a crime of some sort.
Then I heard more shrieking brakes and two police cars came and a police community support officer came belting round the corner shouting. I could hear other voices so I assume that another police car had come the other way – a classic pincer movement on my doorstep.
A few seconds later, the running police officer came back with a man in handcuffs – the other one was nowhere in sight, worryingly. Then followed a long time of talking, sitting, on the radio, gathering and chatting, back slapping by police officers and PCSOs. I watched them do a cursory search of the car but nothing was found as far as I could see.
Now as a journalist, did I take pictures! You bet I did, as soon as I realised this was a little bit of drama. Then I thought can I use them? I itch to use them. They’re not that exciting, I have to say as the two men had run off before I had time to even think ‘camera’.
Should I use them?
Let’s think about it. These two men could be innocent of any crime. Unlikely as innocent people don’t shriek away from police cars, abandon their ‘own’ car in the middle of a street and run off. But they could be. Is there likely to be a court case? Who knows? Would my showing the pictures prejudice that case? Possibly if one defendant’s case was that he wasn’t there I suppose? Or that the car wasn’t his? Or he wasn’t in the car?
The pictures clearly identify the car, and one of the men, so should I use them? They do show that this is a nice street and give the impression that such an event is highly unusual and quite exciting. But then that would be the case for most of us. They show that the police acted quickly to deal with it, with the minimum of fuss although there was quite a bit of hanging around afterwards.
On balance, I’ve decided not to publish some of the pictures in case the police decide to knock on my door, or the suspect (or his mate) does the same! But what I’m telling you is true, even if slightly pointless!
high drama on a Wiltshire street - well for a Thursday afternoon
Only a week or so ago I warned about chattering about court cases on social media sites. Mad really, given how much I like to chatter myself.
But there’s chatter – and there’s chatter. Talking about a court case when you’ve little knowledge of how our judicial system works is very dangerous. Doing the same if you are a juror in a court case is a complete no-no.
Gossiping about a court case in this way can lead to a trial collapsing – as it has in this case – and then there may be a re-trial. Or people who are potentially guilty of a crime may get off on a technicality. That’s not in anybody’s public interest. And there’s the waste of time and money by police, court staff, lawyers.
Keep your mouth shut if you are a juror - including online.
And now it’s been proved. A woman jailed for eight months for contempt of court when she had an online conversation with another woman who’d been acquitted earlier in the same trial.
This juror’s chatter, which was about her fellow jurors and their deliberations, has now cost her dear. Gossip gone mad. But even had she not mentioned the case at all, just the mere connection with someone involved in the case might have been enough.
What this case shows to me is that the internet is not immune to UK law.
The judge looked at the motivation and actions of the individual – not at where she expressed her views or comments. The same effect would have come about if she’d published a letter in The News of the World.
The question for me is – how can this be avoided in the future? Can it be avoided?
Is our use of the internet now so powerful and pervasive that we cannot help but interact on line?
The BBC correspondent covering the case did suggest that we might have to consider being more relaxed about our court cases, as they are in America where journalists (everyone in fact) has much more freedom to speak out.
And how many times has this happened and the chatter has never reached a ears of a judge or jury or magistrate? I bet it’s a few, maybe a lot.
I find this whole issue fascinating. But it’s not one I’ll be testing out myself. I don’t fancy spending eight months in jail – or even the four months she’ll actually do if she behaves herself.
Wonder if she’ll tell us about her experience on Facebook? What’s her name again?…..
It seems timely that my blog post about Twitter and court proceedings came up in the news today (June 7). The BBC was reporting this morning that a judge has warned people that if they Twitter inappropriately from his court room and information gets out that should not – he will take action under contempt of court.
This should be taken seriously by anyone tempted to Twitter in court. Contempt of court is a crime and can be punished by imprisonment, though this is rare. All journalists learn about contempt and, believe me, it can be hugely damaging to be involved in such action. Read my blog post about it.
Sooner or later, someone, somewhere will be the human face of this potential problem……
There’s been much debate in media circles about the growing use of Twitter in court rooms.
Attending court, especially if it’s a high profile case, is interesting and bizarrely exciting. So it’s not surprising that people involved might want to send messages out there to talk about what’s going on.
When I give talks about working in the media, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is – what interesting court cases have you attended? Any murders? The answers are ‘loads’ and ‘yes’.
Clearly I’m a huge social media fan and I like Twitter and Facebook and talking online – but one does have to be careful.
Journalists in court will hear many, many things that they are legally not allowed to be made public – sometimes things which are so harrowing that they don’t want to make it public.
I know this was true in the Fred & Rosemary West case as a close friend of mine covered this story from beginning to end. Journalists came together to make a conscious decision not to report on some very distressing details even when they were allowed to do so.
Reporting legally from a court in the UK requires specialist knowledge and training in how courts work and what can and cannot be said.
In my experience, good journalists will have more detailed knowledge of this than the occasional barrister/solicitor. I have had a stand-up row with at least one barrister about my freedom to attend a hearing in a family court – I won.
Qualified journalists know this stuff and, if they are unsure about any part of a process, they know who to ask.
Being in contempt of court is no small matter. It can lead to imprisonment and could cause a case to collapse altogether.
But Twitter almost allows us to become ‘citizen journalists’ and even lawyers like to have a Tweet.
These days with far fewer journalists in employment, quite often there won’t be a reporter in court so anyone can technically ‘have a go’.
Now being a journalist is not rocket science, we don’t have special rights, we are simply representatives of the public.
But courts are a special case. Some people involved are protected eg. Rape victims, children, those under witness protection, victims of blackmail. These names are often read out in court and put on the charge sheet – but journalists cannot make them public. Would you know that?
Court orders are often put in place in a case (involving children for example) at a preliminary hearing, but if you go along to a court case in the public gallery for a full hearing later on, you might not know this.
Ignorance is no defence – but who would think of checking what court orders are in force if they are not journalists? Would you know where to look for a list of relevant court orders or who to ask?
And if a lawyer says ‘bear in mind there’s a Section 39 order in place for this defendant/witness’ , how many people know what that means? (must not name child, give address or school).
I’m not saying that use of Twitter in court rooms should be banned, I could never say that – I’m just saying be very careful.
Judges are more and more aware of social media risks around court cases now. They will warn jurors not to discuss details of a case and include social media sites within their warning. But this will not extend to the public gallery, where people may come and go all of the time.
Some commentators on the media industry believe that the use of Twitter around court proceedings will lead to live TV coverage. In some ways such explicit exposure could be seen to be good in terms of punishment for a guilty defendant, in others it’s even more harrowing for vulnerable witnesses or for those who are later found to be innocent.
The key message is this – be careful, be balanced and use common sense. It’s not in anyone’s interest for a court case to collapse because of a Tweet or two.
Having a twitter in court could cost you dear.....