Avoiding 'trial by social media' in the #JillMeagher case

The tragic case of rape and murder victim Jill Meagher - an Irish national working with ABC Radio in Melbourne - has highlighted both the strong benefits and sharp risks of citizen reporting on live criminal investigations via social media.

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  1. Jill Meagher's body was recovered by homicide detectives from a shallow grave on a rural road outside Melbourne in the early hours of Friday morning.

    41 year old Coburg man Adrian Ernest Bayley was charged with her rape and murder overnight

  2. Both police and Jill Meagher's family highlighted the role social media had played in the investigation, with Ms Meagher's family representative in Ireland thanking the public, and investigators describing the social  media campaign to help find her as "unprecedented".
  3. However, from the moment news broke of Bayley's arrest last night, a torrent of legally risky social media posts began. On Twitter & Facebook I watched with increasing concern, as speculation grew in inverse proportion to the available evidence.
  4. So, I delved into my online journalism teaching resources and posted a link to the excellent text by David Ingram 'The News Manual', which includes a must read section on publishing (which is precisely what you're doing when you openly post content online) and commentary surrounding criminal investigations, highlighting sub judice & contempt.
  5. By sunrise, Jill Meagher's body had been recovered and the accused man had appeared in court, meaning he could be named. Many angry and anguished people turned to Twitter, using the #RIPJILLMEAGHER, #JILLIANMEAGHER & #JILLMEAGHER hashtags to aggregate their conversations. I saw many posts which made judgements about Bayley's guilt, speculated about his history and linked to pictures of him (Conservative News Ltd columnist Andrew Bolt also reportedly linked to questionable content on his blog - he's since deleted the link).
  6. This kind of unfettered publishing described above, which is not informed by media law, is extremely risky as it could prejudice a fair trial for Bayley and thereby derail the prosecution process, as leading Australian media law expert Mark Polden told Crikey
  7. In summary, the following kinds of publication must be avoided FROM THE TIME OF AN ARREST UNTIL SENTENCING

    1) Commentary on the guilt or the innocence of the accused
    2) Details of prior criminal convictions or charges
    3) The publication of photos of the accused.

    And posting to any open online platform - blogs, Facebook and Twitter included - constitutes publication

    The only content 'safe' to post is an accurate account of what's said in open court (i.e. "The court heard")
  8. Both Polden and I spoke to Radio 2SER about our concerns regarding social media users publishing legally risky content about the case (audio)
  9. The bottom line: in order for justice to be done, an accused person must be presumed innocent until proven guilty and receive a fair trial. That means a jury must be able to be formed and hear a case without the risk of prejudice towards the person on trial. That's arguably difficult to ensure in the event of saturation media coverage - even harder in the context of realtime, globally connected social media platforms with their capacity for magnification.

    You can see a useful graph illustrating the relevant time-frames pertaining to publishing and sub judice contempt at The News Manual.
  10. Further details on the risks regarding sub judice & contempt in Victoria (where Bayley will be tried) can be found at the website of the Victorian Government's Solicitor's Office
  11. In recognition of these risks, Jill Meagher's brave husband faced the cameras outside the court where his wife's alleged murderer had appeared and asked the media to respect his family's privacy, while also calling on social media users to be aware of the potential damage that judgmental comments about the accused could do to proceedings.
  12. However, social media commentator Laurel Papworth challenged the concerns I tweeted about the social media coverage of Jill Meagher case, declaring sub judice law 'archaic'
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