It’s a question that has come up time and again when covering big criminal trials - and as journalists we feel it is our duty to answer those questions.
The Examiner takes care never to publish stories about ongoing criminal trials on Facebook, and there’s a simple reason for it: we don’t want to prejudice a trial.
Freedom of speech is outweighed in British law by the accused person’s right to a fair trial. It may not be something everyone agrees with, but the law is the law.
So for covering cases such as the ongoing Operation Tendersea case, this means we must follow strict publishing guidelines - and that includes Facebook.
What are the guidelines?
The Contempt of Court Act 1981 states that when covering ongoing criminal trials, it is an offence to publish anything on any platform which could cause a substantial risk of serious prejudice to these active proceedings. In plain English, this means that anything written in a newspaper or online which could be seen by a juror and sway their verdict is illegal.
What kind of comments can land you in trouble?
Anything which references a defendant’s previous convictions, suggestions they are of bad character, evidence not heard by the jury in court or any other suggestion or indication of guilt.
Why can't we post cases on Facebook?
If we post a story about a trial, the comments on that post are made on our platform in the eyes of the law, not the commenter’s. So any comments that could be read by a member of the jury and affect their decision over the defendant’s guilt or innocence would land us in trouble, not the person who originally made that comment.
But why do you still tweet these stories?
Twitter, however, is different. The Examiner is free to tweet stories about an ongoing case because any responses seen as prejudicial to the case would be made on that individual user’s account, not ours. It is your responsibility not to post things on social media which could land you in trouble with the law.
There are other newspapers who post these cases on Facebook - there is no law specifically stating newspapers cannot post the stories on Facebook, just that we at the Examiner are aware of the risks it carries.
What happens if someone posts a prejudicial comment?
If the comments are found to have swayed a jury’s verdict over a defendant, the court may have to abandon the case to form a new jury. As a result, prosecutors could decide to press charges against whoever is responsible, and that would be us.
Anyone found guilty of breaching the Contempt of Court Act can be punished with an unlimited fine and/or a maximum of two years in jail, as well as a criminal record.
When can you publish a story of Facebook?
Once a trial has come to an end and the jury has reached a decision, the case is no longer active and we are free to post these stories on Facebook.