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Law Column: Lifelong anonymity orders in the social media age

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All journalists are aware that children who are convicted of crimes are, more often than not, protected by reporting restrictions. But whilst professional journalists respect and comply with Court Orders, can the same be said for the amateur commentator?

Whilst most of us looked forward to turning 18 and being able to drink alcohol legally, being considered an adult, and generally enjoying the transition to the next stage of life, those children convicted of a crime at a young age probably would prefer the cloak of anonymity to continue indefinitely.

It is a rarity for the Courts to make lifelong anonymity orders preventing the identity of child defendants becoming public. In fact, there were only six people in the UK that had been given such anonymity – Jon Venables, Robert Thompson, Mary Bell, Maxine Carr and the Edlington brothers. This figure has recently risen to seven with the addition of the youngest person in the UK to have been convicted of terrorism – known only as ‘RXG’.

RXG was convicted at the age of 14 after he incited another person to commit acts of terrorism overseas. Approaching his 18th birthday, an application for a lifelong anonymity order was made, and granted by the Court. Whilst there was no risk to RXG’s physical safety (he is in a secure institution), the Court found that RXG’s characteristics and vulnerability to exploitation meant that if his identity were revealed, it would have a “profound impact on his psychological well-being”.

As many readers will know, Tina Malone was recently charged with contempt of court for re-posting a photo on Facebook said to be a photo of Jon Venables. Probably not as well-known is the conviction of Richard McKeag and Natalie Barker who also shared photographs said to be of Venables. In addition, Anthony John Wixted was jailed for nine months for sharing photos of Jon Venables’ photo and alias.

Going viral in today’s society is often on many people’s bucket lists. It is often an aim of many to get internet fame. Information can spread at an unfathomable rate, and it only takes a few shares before the shared information/photograph becomes quickly out of control of the original poster.

The recent case of the YouTube star Brooke Houts shows how out of control it can get. She posted an uncut video of her playing a prank on her dog which was picked up by someone on Twitter. Whilst she deleted the original video, it was too late. Someone had recorded her video and shared it for the world to see.

So with all of this in mind, the question has to asked: are lifelong anonymity orders realistically enforceable? And if they are not, is it right that professional journalists should be constrained in what they can report whilst the amateur gets away with flouting the law?

After all, by the time the court seal dries on the order, it feasible that the identity of the individual may already be widely known due to one person sharing it to their followers, friends, and acquaintances.

But the convictions of Tina Malone, Richard McKeag, Natalie Barker, and Anthony John Wixted show that the Courts are not simply going to roll over and accept that anonymity orders cannot be enforced just because the breach occurred via social media. Clearly, orders will be enforced by the authorities and, as it stands, that appears to be deterrent enough to prevent too many people breaching the anonymity order.

But what if people en masse decided to breach an Order? What’s to stop them doing it?*

It is clear that social media platforms, regulators, the government, and the judiciary need to find ways in which to police and enforce lifelong anonymity orders. It’s wrong in principle for different kinds of writer to be subject (in practice) to different legal regimes.

Fortunately, lifelong anonymity orders are still as rare as ever so these kinds of concerns are very much theoretical. But who knows how technology will develop?

* Disclaimer – we DO NOT recommend breaching any anonymity orders, whether en masse or otherwise. Take note of Tina Malone!

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