The blogging world is essentially diamagnetic to the iron fist of controlling legislation. We scattered like whirling dervishes to our keyboards to denounce Baroness Buscombe’s suggestion that the PCC might encompass the blogging world in its efforts to do the Government’s thinking and control all dissenting voices.
‘Never!’ we cried, ‘Prise our cold dead hands from our keyboards!’ we plagiarised over and over again. ‘We are free thinkers – what about Free Speech?’.
It is as though we have collectively imbibed the wisdom of the Devil, that there is only Carter-Ruck unfairly standing between us and our utopia of total anarchic freedom of thought and expression.
Ms Raccoon would humbly suggest that there is a far greater barrier on our route to the promised land than the relatively puny, and insignificant by comparison, figure of Mssrs. Carter-Ruck & Co. (Excuse me whilst I cock a virtual snook at that esteemed organisation, as is obligatory on the part of any blogger worthy of the name)
In the past two days, the name of Delroy Grant – the alleged ‘Nightstalker’ of South London – has resulted in no less than 196,000 Google entries, such is the worldwide interest in this case. Quite why Delroy Grant has fired the imagination of people from all four corners of the world is hard to fathom, there have been other equally lurid stories in the past, but that is by the bye. What is pertinent is that he has been charged with a string of serious offences and must stand trial before a jury of his peers.
One of the defining differences between the blogging world and the professional journalist’s world is the matter of training, particularly in media law, before rearing up on ones hind legs and applying hooves to keyboard. If the training is remiss or fails in the heat of the moment, there is still the watchful eye of experienced sub-editors to iron out unwise words. Bloggers have no such safety net, they stand or fall on their own estimation of what they can legally say. Indeed, they may take a lead from the newspapers, taking false comfort from the fact that the printed news will not lead them astray.
We have a historic right in this country, one that is currently in jeopardy, that of the right to a free, fair and impartial trial – by jury in the case of a murder. One of the cornerstones of that right is that the jury should judge only those facts which are put before them in the courtroom and not be swayed by prior knowledge of the defendant. For that reason we also have both common law ‘contempt’ and statute – The Contempt of Court Act 1981 (CCA) which limits the amount of ‘background information’ – or speculation – the media can print once a person has been charged with an offence.
The statutory offence is STRICT LIABILITY. You do not need to intend to interfere with a fair trial. It is a criminal offence, not a letter from Carter-Ruck. In 1994 The Sun published a photograph of a man charged with murder, and were found to be in contempt and fined £100,00. You might expect them to be more cautious than to publish two articles that appear to drive a coach and horses at, if not through, the CCA over the past few days. An interview with the man’s ex-wife detailing many prejudicial aspects of his character can scarcely escape being considered – prejudicial.
It is not the well being of The Sun which concerns me though, nor that of individual bloggers, it is the well being of the jury system.
Jury trial hangs by a thread at present. If it is considered ‘impossible’ to regulate the blogging world from prejudicial comment affecting the right to a fair hearing by a jury – then the only alternative will be to abandon the concept of jury trial.
That would be a consequence which would please many of a totalitarian bent, it would be a sad epitaph if it came at the hands of the libertarian blogging world. We are between the rock of Free Speech and the hard place of Free Trial. Tread gently out there.