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Alex Morrison

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Can Court Tweets be Fair and Accurate?

Posted: 12/14/11 08:32 AM ET

"Twitter as much as you wish", the Lord Chief Justice has told court reporters.

Lord Judge has ruled that journalists will no longer have to request permission before tweeting, texting or emailing from courts in England and Wales.

Being able to communicate with colleagues and file copy from court will certainly help journalists, but Twitter is a different story.

Any trainee reporter will tell you court stories must be "fair, accurate and contemporaneous" in order to attract "absolute privilege" - a complete defence against being sued for printing allegations made in court.

The question is: Can court Tweets be fair and accurate?

Twitter's 140-charatcer limit is the essence of its popularity - bite-sized information from an endless variety of sources - but bite-sized may not be the way to report court proceedings.

Even lengthy articles are unlikely to get anywhere near explaining the complexities of a criminal trial, where minute evidential details often become crucial to the case, but a reporter who has been in court can produce a fair summary.

As a rule, most editors expect court stories to contain full details such as the names, ages and addresses of those involved, the names of the lawyers, a list of all criminal charges and so on.

We do this not only to give a full account of proceedings, but to prevent misunderstandings such as the rare occasions when people with the same name as a defendant have been mistaken for the alleged criminal - we have privilege protecting court reports but we have no defence if we make inadvertent accusations against someone who has no connection to a trial!

Though a court case could be reported through a series of short messages, Twitter allows users to see each Tweet and, in taken isolation, these may not be fair or accurate reports.

Newspapers are often accused of dumbing down information to produce simple stories, and Tweeting criminal trials risks taking this to the extreme, so journalists must take as much care with their Tweets as they would a with front page lead.

Lord Judge warned that the new freedoms may be withdrawn "at any time" in the interests of justice. Let's hope all journalists use this chance wisely.

 

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