Social media in courtrooms - Courts must be protected to protect us

THE old classroom admonishment “tell the truth and shame the devil” may not ring out as loudly as it once did. Indeed, considerable evidence suggests that the instruction was never as widely observed as our teachers or parents might have hoped. 

In many instances it seemed a twee convention, a social nicety hollowed out by the cut and thrust of life. Despite that neglect, the principle has assumed a renewed relevance. Almost single-handedly, US President Donald Trump has shown what can happen when the truth, or even a diluted version of it, can be discounted.

That make-it-up-off-the-cuff principle may yet be seen as the defining characteristic of his presidency, especially as he describes any reportage of his and his cabal’s misadventures as “fake news”. Another strand of that legacy may be a widespread indifference to truth; a state of mind that imagines integrity, reliability, and the social contract on which we all depend as something as quaint as a sepia-toned classroom principle.

That alone might not be the end of civilisation as we know it but the deliberate use of disinformation, of purposely skewed facts, of politicised interpretation, may challenge its foundations — especially as that process is made easier than ever before by universality of social media.

Those issues are in play much closer to home and were highlighted when former chief justice Susan Denham opened a discussion on the threat posed by uncontrolled social media commentary to the “fundamental” right to a fair trial, and how that right might be protected.

These issues were brought to a head by the Jobstown trial where supporters of the defendants, who were all cleared, offered commentary on the trial from the courtroom. It is impossible to prove that this commentary had a bearing on the verdict but it is equally impossible to prove that it did not. It is impossible, though, to pretend that this reality does not exist. It is foolish to pretend that there are not those who would exploit it for their own ends. It must be resolved in a way that enhances, to use another sepia-tinted phrase, the full majesty of the law so the rights of individuals and society might be strengthened rather than undermined.

The courtroom broadcasting, however, provoked Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to acknowledge the challenges social media brings to the administration of justice. This and new legislation seem inevitable if the rights of all individuals and society are to be protected in a way that can stand above criticism.

As is nearly always the case, it is easier to acknowledge this need than to satisfy it. Should the right to tweet, for public consumption, from a courtroom be confined to professional journalists working for a recognised entity? Would that limit citizen journalists or challenge the right of free speech?

These are complex issues and maybe another old principle should be invoked as legislation is prepared — who benefits if the integrity of our courts is undermined? Or to frame it in a more contemporary way, what would Mr Trump prefer? A social media free for all weakening his opponents or courts with the authority to define the truth?


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