The BBC College of Journalism has published a selection of views on the CPS Public consultation on its Interim Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media, which closes on 13 March 2013. My contribution is below and the others, including John Cooper QC, Jon Harman, learning design and media director at London’s University of Law, Sue Llewellyn, media trainer, and David Banks, journalist and media law consultant, can be found here.
We’re in a contradictory and disconcerting place at the moment. Three years ago we saw the abolition of criminal libel and blasphemy and the word ‘insulting’ is to be removed from the Public Order Act.
However, there has been increasing use of criminal law in relation to social media – sometimes in disproportionate ways, as in the ‘Twitter joke’ trial. Concerns have also been raised about the consistency and severity of sentencing, especially in relation to sick jokes and political – albeit distasteful – comment.
It appears, as Professor Ian Cram has argued, that much energy is spent on ‘shoehorning new practices and behaviour into existing legal categories’. It is encouraging that the CPS now acknowledges these tensions with its sensible, if vague, interim guidelines.
A more nuanced consideration of social media use and the public interest is certainly needed. But there is another area to emphasise too: education. As the CPS rightly identifies, children ‘may not appreciate the potential harm and seriousness of their communications and a prosecution is rarely likely to be in the public interest’.
That lack of appreciation may apply to many adults too. Better public legal education around media is needed to prevent genuinely harmful communication acting against the public interest, especially in relation to breaches of reporting restrictions, threats of violence and harassment.