Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Your media versus the Joanna Yeates murder investigation

BRISTOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 27:  The family of...Image by Getty Images via @daylifeIf you're in the UK you'll have heard about the tragic murder of the Joanna Yeates. You’ll have heard that her landlord was questioned over the case, most likely as well.

So where does that leave the UK legal system? Would you now be disqualified from being a member of the jury? If you have an opinion on the case then you should be. For example, if you suspect the landlord did it - then you're not a valid choice as a member of the jury.

There’s such a thing as the Contempt of Court Act (for English law) which is supposed to make it an offence to publish anything that would jeopardise a fair future trial. The police don’t think the media have been following this very well in the Joanna Yeates case.

It is alleged that ITN were banned from a press conference about the investigation by the police.

ITN have said that this is an “attempt to censor what information we can broadcast”.

Avon and Somerset police have complained to Ofcom over a broadcast ITN made that criticised the investigation.

ITN are hardly alone in pushing the boundaries of what might “endanger a future fair trial” though. For example, the Daily Mail ran an article titled "We thought ‘nutty professor’ was gay, say ex-pupils". The article then goes on to suggest that men would be a more likely target of a sex attack from the landlord than a woman.

These comments come from the media. In the UK where a non-journalist can go to jail for tweeting about Robin Hood airport we need to think about what social media coverage of the murder and investigation might mean in the legal sense too.

Have you tweeted about Joanna Yeates? Have you read a tweet about the murder and investigation? Would that tweet be considered Contempt of Court? Maybe.

It strikes me that we're approaching a tipping point for social media. Whether it's the ASA responding to complaints about online content, the police worried about the spread of information (or false information) or even the legal system coming down heavily on individual users I suspect we'll hear a lot more of this in 2011.

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