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.
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.
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.”