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Revealed: How murder trial collapsed because of comments on Facebook

The BBC has revealed how a group of media organisations fought for the right to cover the case of two girls convicted this week of murdering a vulnerable woman in her own home – after an earlier trial collapsed due to prejudicial comments on social media.

The two schoolgirls, who cannot be named, were convicted on Tuesday of the murder of Hartlepool woman Angela Wrightson and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of 15 years yesterday.

As was reported by the Northern Echo last July, an earlier trial in the case was scrapped and the jury discharged, although the Echo along with the rest of the media was severely restricted as to what it was allowed to report about the judge’s reasons for halting it.

Only now can it be revealed that the reason for the judge’s decision was because of what he called “an avalanche of prejudicial comments” that had been posted on Facebook pages, including those of a number of media organisations.

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The full sequence of events was recounted for the first time by the BBC’s Colin George in a piece published on its website yesterday.

He revealed that on the third day of the original trial at Teesside Crown Court, the judge, Sir Henry Globe QC, was alerted to more than 500 comments that had been posted about the case on social media in what was described by the prosection as a “virtual lynching mob.”

Both the prosecution and the defence agreed that there was now a “real risk” that the defendants would be unable to have a fair trial.  Mr Justice Globe agreed and scrapped the case.

He then went on to put in place an order which effectively prohibited ahy reporting of the new trial until the verdicts were returned.

It was this order that led to a legal challenge by the BBC and eight other organisations to enable the media to report the case.

They were: Associated Newspapers, Express Newspapers, Sky News, The Guardian, The Independent, The Mirror Group, The Telegraph and The Times.

At a hearing in October, they argued that the order was against the principle of open justice and was impractical in that it would not prevent people posting on social media.

But Mr Justice Globe was again unmoved, saying in a written ruling said the media organisations who had published the links on Facebook had “identified the haystack and placed a lot of needles on top of it.”

Undeterred, the media organisations then decided to take their case to the Court of Appeal where, of all people, it was heard by Sir Brian Leveson.

But the judge whose eponymous inquiry into the phone-hacking affair led to a new era of press regulation this time came down on the side of the media.

In a judgement delivered on 11 February, he agreed to grant the appeal, but with a series of conditions.

This would enable the media to report the trial, but not to mention it on social media or allow comments underneath stories until the verdicts were returned.

Lord Justice Leveson said the case “raises the issue of how critical fair trial protections can be extended to prevent or control communications on social media.”

He added: “In relation to modern social media, comments are immediately available at the click of a mouse… there is no doubt that there are wider issues involved than encompassed by this particular litigation.”

Eileen Murphy, the executive editor for the BBC News website across England, said: “This was an important case for us to bring.

“It was important for the local community, which had been shocked by Angela’s death and deserved to know how the judicial case was proceeding, but also important in protecting the wider principles of journalistic freedom to report from open court.

“As digital platforms have emerged as a key way to bring news to audiences, so has reporting and the application of the law relating to journalism.

“The BBC will continue to report legal proceedings across available platforms in a responsible and transparent way.”

7 comments

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  • April 8, 2016 at 10:35 am
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    I’m surprised any media organisations still allowed comments on on-going trials – thought it was a given that you didn’t. Meanwhile…good on Leveson. I think he may have learned something about how the media works -looks like he called it right!

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  • April 8, 2016 at 11:11 am
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    @GladImOutOfIt You should be able to turn off comments on your own site for legal reasons but you can’t turn off comments under a post about your story on Facebook.

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  • April 8, 2016 at 2:21 pm
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    Of course – my point was that I was I was surprised that comments were allowed on any media sites during the trial. And I am pleased that Leveson banned them from posting links on social media during it – because then it is indeed open season on comments. I hope all media outlets learn from this case.

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  • April 8, 2016 at 3:33 pm
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    Always thought it would be great if your name was Dunn and you were a judge called Justice Dunn.

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  • April 8, 2016 at 10:52 pm
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    Why weren’t the people who prejudiced the initial case prosecuted? Oh, different rules for the Press and social media! Well played Lord Justice Leveson!

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  • April 8, 2016 at 10:55 pm
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    But how do you stop someone simply copying and pasting the link, putting it on a local FB page, and allowing people to comment en masse? You can’t. Unless the law starts treating commenters on social media in the same way it would treat a journalist commenting on an ongoing court case, there’s no deterrent against people prejudicing trials on FB.

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  • April 9, 2016 at 7:27 am
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    I’ve come across the same problem myself with judges raising concerns about members of the public commentating on trials. There is no easy answer to this problem.

    Generally reporters covering court are fully aware of what they can or can’t say regarding an ongoing court case. The same cannot be said of the public. Media organisations can disable the comment feature from their own websites and not post the story to Facebook or Twitter.

    It doesn’t stop members of the public doing exactly the same. I covered a very high profile murder trial last year and there is a “justice” group on Facebook that even now posts most stories written about the victim. People then comment.

    So the fact the media may be prevented themselves from cross-posting on social media by court order doesn’t stop anyone else doing it. During the same said trial the media were banned from reporting certain facts. It didn’t stop them appearing on Facebook posted by an individual who took it upon themselves to live blog the trial from the public gallery.

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