Tuesday 21 January 2020

Tribulations of trials in the age of social media

Ciara Kelly. Photo: David Conachy
Ciara Kelly. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

'Did you comment on the Belfast rape trial on social media?" asked Ciara Kelly on Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 12 noon). "Lots and lots of people did."

They did indeed, leading to Paddy Jackson's solicitor Joe McVeigh being, as Ciara said, "visibly angry" while referring to social media being misused during the trial. To tease out these important questions around court trials in the online age, she spoke to lawyer Andrea Martin of Media Law Solicitors.

There had been reports, Kelly went on, that the complainant was named on social media; one of the jurors apparently commented on the case; people raised concerns about the jury being influenced by social media; and of course, claims that the defendants had been defamed. "Is that just the way it is now," she asked, "or is something going to have to change to protect due process?"

Martin said that, going back to our Constitution and fundamental laws, there's a legal right to freedom of expression, a requirement that justice be done transparently and in public, and the right to a fair trial.

"We have case law that says, if those rights can't be combined and observed in a mutually harmonious way, then the right to a fair trial must take precedence," she said.

The problem with social media commentary, Andrea added, is the possibility it will influence jurors who are supposed to judge a case solely on the basis of what they hear in court. "Do guidelines have to be brought in that restrict what can be said on social media, while a case is going on?" she said. "That really needs to be looked at."

These issues were also addressed on a packed Saturday with Cormac Ó hEadhra (Radio 1, 1pm). That's "packed" in the sense of a busy range of topics - justice system, teachers, abortion - and the fact they again squeezed in no fewer than five contributors.

(This, for me, is at least two too many. It's confusing for the listener, detrimental to productive discussion, and hampers an otherwise-fine programme and broadcaster. In fairness, Saturday with… isn't the only show guilty of overstuffing its panels.)

So what does pass for legal commentary on this trial? Barrister Ben O'Flynn said: "General observations about how the trial was organised, differences between a similar event here - those are fair comments."

The comments of Jackson's lawyers, he continued, "are directed towards more personal observations, disagreements with the verdict… Some of those have been quite trenchant, and that would definitely fall into the category of being defamatory of someone who'd been acquitted of a crime".

Now: why is radio so obsessed with teachers? Radio 1 especially. They're fixated on history, too, especially the Rising/Civil War.

So it was that we reached some sort of Peak Radio 1 on Drivetime ( Mon-Fri 4.30pm) when, as well as being one of several programmes to cover this year's conferences, they had a bit about how "Easter week was also teacher conference week way back in 1918". A union get-together 100 years ago? How is this worth mentioning, really?

"The national media is focused on teacher conferences this week," Mary Wilson said, partly proving the disjunction between media and public that you often read about. I have literally never heard anyone bring up teacher conferences in normal conversation.

They also had historian Mark Duncan on how the Rising was commemorated in 1918. So we're looking back at how people had looked back on something, a long time ago. Is it just me who finds this kind of "living in the past" navel-gazing to be rather boring and somehow pointless?

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