Can Twitter be held in contempt?


So Joey Barton will not be prosecuted for comments made in 140 character bursts regarding fellow footballer John Terry’s alleged behaviour. Here on Quay Street though, as at any other PR firm in Manchester, we’re sure it won’t be the last we hear of this situation.
And that’s not just because the catalyst event in this scenario – what happened on the pitch- is part of an ongoing legal situation. Social networking has long since joined the debate surrounding words like libel and contempt, meaning it was no surprise that in recent weeks a high profile sporting personality was nearly held in contempt of court for publishing thoughts on an active case. The phrase ‘sooner or later’ comes to mind.
Of course this is by no means the first instance something like this has happened. How could anyone forget the furore surrounding gagging injunctions, and the journalist who became the first person to have their Twitter activity passed over to the Attorney General. Arguably in that instance it was less excusable to blatantly disregard media codes and laws, as reporters, editors, feature writers and subs should all be adequately trained in what can and can’t be written down and distributed. Here’s where the problem lies.
Laws of contempt of court are required in order to ensure a fair trial; if journalism was allowed to purposefully bias a legal battle things could get messy, not to mention dangerous. But in an age wherein You Tube’s tagline, ‘broadcast yourself’, stands as something of an online mantra should we now expect media legalities to feature on the national curriculum? We are all publishers, as the online cliche goes, so do we not need the same knowledge as those in charge of magazines and newspapers?
The quagmire that is libel provides more support for a pro media-educated society. Two years ago questions resurfaced with ferocity about British libel law thanks to its notoriously sympathetic stance towards the claimant, as oppose to defending publication, with London seen as the libel tourism capital of the world (wherein parties from outside the UK use the British legal system to claim libel).
Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, so clearly it’s important for publications to have an objective say in current affairs- science journalism being a key area of debate there. But with increased attention on social networks as homes for content what would seem anomalous now- a business suing an individual for social media comments- may not be so strange in years to come. As such people using online platforms are placing themselves in the same firing line as just about any magazine, newspaper, and website with copies or an online domain available to UK readers.
Realistically the idea of libel sitting next to maths on high school timetables is pretty far fetched- if that happened we’d also need to include copyright, intellectual property, and defamation. And whether laws surrounding such misdoings need to be changed isn’t a simple thing to decide upon. Those in the pro-change camp can’t sugar coat America’s reputation as an ‘anything goes’ news landscape; the polar opposite to, but equally dangerous when compared with a UK media losing money whilst being worried about the financial repercussions from articles. Clearly then the jury is out and still debating, but one thing is certain. This type of situation is becoming more common, meaning it’s never been more important to think before you speak.