The Content Conundrum

August 18, 2011 2:26 pm


Anyone can say anything online, but is that a good thing from a legal perspective?

A major part of training as a journalist is becoming familiar with the legal guidelines that govern the trade. When it comes to court reporting and the publishing of details about legal proceeding, there are several laws governing what publications can and cannot do.

So a journalist or a news publication can be held in contempt of court if they publish the name of a child (defined as a person under 18, or under 17 in Queensland) without the permission of the court. They can also be held in contempt for ‘scandalising the court’, which evokes an image of Sandra Sully ripping off her shirt in a courtroom and swinging it lasso-like around her head. Actually, the reality is less entertaining. ‘Scandalising the court’ means suggesting the court’s integrity has been compromised, for example by saying a judge deliberately made a poor decision, or was drunk or taking bribes.

Trained journalists are well aware of these rules and the reasons behind them, but the rise of citizen journalism and an influx of social media court commentators has created a mediascape in which people are not only unaware of the laws governing publishing, but are also capable of having a massive impact on legal cases. Like handing a child a loaded shotgun, massive power in the hands of those who don’t fully understand its uses or dangers is never the greatest idea.

Dangers of untrained court reporting

The importance of a jury making their decision based solely on the facts of the case cannot be overstated. Trial by jury underpins the entire legal structure of this country, yet keeping juries free from outside influence during the case is becoming harder than ever before. In the Daniel Morcombe case, which has just seen a man charged with the boy’s murder after an agonising eight-year search, social media is bound to be a risk.

Peter Black, a legal expert at the Queensland University of Technology, has warned that too much information shared or published via social media could have impact on the case against the man charged with Daniel’s murder. In an article for The Courier Mail, he warned that a worst-case scenario could see an indefinite delay in proceedings due to pre-trial prejudiced publicity. ‘There are rules that have developed over time that ensures there is not material out there in the public domain that has the capacity to interfere with the administration of justice or to potentially prejudicially affect a fair trial,’ said Black.

Everyone is accountable

The laws that govern journalism and court reporting are not limited solely to people working professionally, however, and everyone with a Facebook account or blog should take heed. When you post a status update, tweet, blog, upload or otherwise share your content online, you are publishing that content. This makes ordinary people just as susceptible to charges of contempt of court, should they be found to be publishing material that is prohibited.

It is time for everyday citizens to get informed about their responsibilities, as well as their rights, when it comes to social media – but it is also time for authorities to put some serious effort into educating the masses on why these laws exist.


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Image Source: Courrier Mail




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