Sunday 22 October 2017

DPP missed chance to clamp down on irresponsible social media

Stock photo
Stock photo
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

A week on from the Jobstown trial verdict it remains unclear why the Director of Public Prosecutions did not take a firmer stance against the use of social media by parties with an interest in the case.

One of the defendants, Solidarity TD Paul Murphy, was warned by the DPP about tweets and retweets towards the end of the trial.

One of the retweets was of a message accusing gardaí of being liars.

It would have been open to the judge to hold him in contempt of court, but she didn't after learning he had given an assurance the material was being deleted from his Twitter account.

Counsel for the DPP did not press the issue, even though they would have been well within their rights to do so.

Others who sailed close to the wind escaped without any sort of reprimand.

In a social media post, Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger said the defence legal teams were challenging what the judge had said in her charge to the jury, even though it is forbidden to report anything that happens in the absence of the jury. Had similar behaviour been engaged in by a newspaper or television channel, they could have expected the DPP to come down on them like a tonne of bricks.

One only has to look at the collapsed trial of Clare GP Patrick Carmody to see the tough penalties meted out when a contempt occurs.

Two newspapers were hit with the €480,000 cost of the trial after publishing articles containing matters discussed in the absence of the jury. A judge found the articles presented a potential risk of Dr Carmody not getting a fair trial.

During the Jobstown trial, a number of people tweeted evidence heard in the absence of the jury. They have faced no penalty.

It could be argued social media does not have the same reach or influence as traditional media, but it still amounts to publication and its reach can still be considerable. Mr Murphy, for example, has over 14,500 followers on Twitter.

Debate has raged in recent days as to whether new laws are needed to deal with contempt of court through social media. In reality, though, the DPP had the tools at her disposal to act.

It is a common law offence to deliberately disrupt court proceedings, make untrue allegations about a court or judge, or publish prejudicial material about a pending court case.

Some believe the DPP did not act in a firmer fashion out of fear the trial could be thrown off course or, worse still, collapse. But no official reason has been given.

If punitive action had been taken it would have sent out a clear message and would have acted to discourage irresponsible use of social media in connection with future trials.

Irish Independent

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