The Liverpool Echo has warned readers not to “jeopardise” any potential prosecutions arising from today’s Hillsborough criminal charges by making prejudicial social media posts.
The announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service that six people will be charged with criminal offences over the 1989 disaster, which claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool Football Club supporters, has prompted the regional daily to issue a caution over online publishing.
Echo crime reporter Joe Thomas has written a piece for the Echo’s website explaining Contempt of Court to readers under the headline ‘Do not give suspects chance to claim they can’t have a fair trial’.
The Echo has won multiple awards for it campaigning work with the families of Hillsborough survivors over the past 27 years, and last year a jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing after fresh inquests were held into the tragedy.
In his piece, Joe stressed it was “vital that nothing is done to jeopardise the prosecutions”.
He wrote: “In legal terms the proceedings against those charged are now ‘active’. Under contempt laws this means nothing should be published that could cause a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing the legal process.
“In essence, a process is now underway that could see those charged face a jury trial – and nothing should be done that could influence prospective jurors that someone is guilty.
“This means social media posts – whether a profile has 10 or 10,000 followers – should not include comments that implies any suspect is guilty of the offence they have been accused of. Doing so could provide a basis for a defendant to argue they can not get a fair hearing.
“Lawyers representing those accused of wrongdoing could argue that, because so much has been said, heard and written about their clients’ involvement in Hillsborough or its aftermath, it would be impossible for them to get a fair trial.”
Joe went on to explain arguments include the ‘fade factor’ of material published many months before a potential trial and jurors being warned not to research their cases by judges meant the Echo would not have to remove past stories and comment pieces from their websites.
But he added: “The focus of contempt laws typically, therefore, rests on new material published once proceedings are active. Which is why the media has to adhere to legal guidelines following the charging decisions – and why individuals using social media should be careful from today.
“The revelation of who has been charged means we also now know who will not face prosecution. As they are not a suspect, there are no ‘active’ proceedings against them. So there is more freedom to comment on those decisions.
“While you could not write, for instance, that it was the correct decision to charge a suspect and why, you could post that you disagree over the decision not to charge someone and explain your reasoning. There is no potential jury to prejudice, so there is no fear of contempt.
“Just be aware that those not charged could potentially sue for defamation if they can prove claims against them cause serious harm to their reputation and are not fair comment.”