Last week media forums, social networking sites and blogs were filled with posts by angry individuals wanting to know why the identity of Baby P’s mother and her boyfriend could not be shared with society. Following this, there were posts naming and shaming the adults involved in this horrific case of child abuse.

Clearly, the Great British public are not aware of the legal ramifications of these actions. As far as they are concerned the mother of Baby P and her boyfriend should have no right to protection by the media. To the majority of society, the publication of their identity is deemed acceptable and perhaps even desirable.

Shane Richmond, Community Editor at Telegraph.co.uk, is familiar with the problem of moderating online content. In a lecture discussing online communities last week, he talked of how difficult it was to keep an eye on the flow of information being put on My Telegraph each day.

He said part of the problem stems from the fact Telegraph readers do not see themselves as bloggers. They use the forum as a way of talking to other Telegraph readers, people who have similar interests and viewpoints. It is likely then, these bloggers do not realise what they are publishing may have considerably graver implications than a conversation with a friend.

In the UK, contempt of court laws are in place to prevent jury members from becoming prejudiced towards a defendant prior to or during a trial. Professor Duncan Bloy says:

“In the criminal justice system the assumption is that the jury is the weakest link.”

This is particularly true in high profile cases which have received a lot of media coverage.

For this reason, the media is bound by the Contempt of Court Act (1981) to act responsibly in terms of what it publishes, especially in the run up to a trial. During the 2001 trial of Leeds’s footballers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, The Mirror acted outside such legal prescriptions. Their infringement of the law led to a retrial and the Sunday Mirror was found guilty of contempt of court.

Back to Baby P. What the British public do not realise is the last thing the media want to do is protect the perpetrators of such a heinous crime.

Journalists are obliged under law to adhere to reporting restrictions. If they do not, legal action can be taken against them or, more likely, their publication. By keeping in line with the judges’s order not to identify Baby P, his mother and her boyfriend, journalists are attempting to maintain the legal framework to ensure that any further trials, which may yet take place, are not abandoned.

The main worry is whether the contempt of court laws can survive the internet age and if so how? What is clear is the provisions are out of place in an era where people have instantaneous access to information and the means to distribute it worldwide. Earlier this week a woman was thrown off a jury for putting a poll on facebook which detailed the case she was sitting on and asked for advice on how she should act.

As Judith Townend points out, members of the public are uneducated about the laws and ethics of journalism and have no editorial controls to stop them publishing. Meanwhile, professionals are restricted, and rightly so, by a code of conduct and the rule of law.

How will we reconcile this dichotomy: journalistic values of authority, autonomy and lack of bias, against community values of transparency and honesty? If we can’t then journalists may be faced with a conversation continuing without them.

One thing is for sure: the status quo cannot remain.

Advertisements