Was Derryn Hinch’s contempt of court case a test for social media?
Derryn Hinch was today fined $100,000 for commenting on Twitter and a blog about the history of Jill Meagher’s killer, Adrian Ernest Bayley. The former broadcaster had claimed his case would test the legal limits of social media.
The contempt related to a suppression order on Bayley’s criminal history. He had been on parole at the time after being jailed for a series of violent sex attacks on prostitutes.
Hinch, who escaped potential jail time, claimed he was not guilty of the “excesses” of social media at the time, which “went way beyond what was legally or morally responsible”.
The case brings to fruition a valid point about the potential implications of posts on social media, not just by journalists but also by the general public.
When Bayley was arrested in Melbourne last year, angry citizens took to Twitter and Facebook to post and share their outrage. Facebook hate groups against Bayley were formed and “liked”, while others researched his background and exposed his criminal record online.
Mainstream journalists, with the exception of Hinch, had access to the same information as the public about Bayley but chose not to publish it. Not because they were operating under more stringent publishing laws, but simply because they were aware of those laws.
Journalists are ever-mindful of legal concerns, such as defamation, contempt of court, racial vilification, suppression orders, privacy, copyright and plagiarism. They know these rules apply to all published material, from newspapers and mainstream media – even the newer mediums of social networks, blogs and websites.
One of the first disciplines that I impress upon fledgling journos in my media ethics class at Macleay College is to tread with caution around the laws that govern the media. But, unfortunately, many of the general public, who via social media have become the new “citizen journalists”, aren’t aware of those laws. They do not realise flouting those laws exposes them to potential litigation. (Remember the story of the Sky News makeup artist and her damaging tweet about a certain politician?)
Tweeters and friends of Facebook may consider their online rantings to be as innocuous as “water cooler talk”, but as the public increasingly rely on and engage with social media, users need to understand that their online comments are not beyond the law. They need to arm themselves with the knowledge once the reserve of media professionals and lawyers.
You may have only a dozen “followers” or “friends” but it takes just one of those people with a much larger network to forward or “retweet” your post and … domino effect: suddenly more people are reading your comments than read the front page of a metropolitan newspaper! – Fiona West
Ten top tips for using social media (and staying out of jail):
1. Don’t tweet when you are drunk. You may regret it in the morning.
2. Watch your language. Social media may be edgy and colloquial but obscene or offensive language is usually unnecessary and can be defamatory.
3. Do not plagiarise: Never lift quotes, images or video from the internet and claim them as your own.
4. Respect copyright and intellectual property laws if downloading material from the internet.
5. Take time to check your facts. Before you rush into a RT (retweet) check out the validity of the information and the source.
6. Correct mistakes as soon as possible. But be aware that deleting a tweet doesn’t remove the problem. How many people had already read it? Was it retweeted?
7. Don’t trust others. Just because someone else published it doesn’t mean you can too. Republishing or retweeting someone else’s defamatory comment makes it your responsibility.
8. Ignore trolls. Encouraging them with a response or trying to expose them with a RT only makes it worse.
9. Use common sense: think carefully about the comments you post – consider how they’ll be interpreted and how they will affect you and others.
10. Never put anything online that you would not put on the front page of a newspaper.