Thursday, 18 November 2010

Publishing anything can have

consequences. Jane Smith over at How Publishing Really Works is planning on having a day about copyright issues on the 19th November. I hope I can contribute something to that then but I would like to raise something else here.
Recently there was an horrific triple murder in a quiet country town north of Adelaide. Unless you have actually lived in a small rural community it would be difficult to imagine the impact this would have on a close knit community.
In the course of their investigation the police made a number of appeals for information and eventually made an arrest. At the court appearance of the suspect the police requested a suppression order on his identity. The request was made on the basis that the suspect claimed an alibi and that had not yet been investigated. The suppression order was granted.
What was potentially at stake at here was something huge - the success or failure of a murder investigation and any subsequent trial.
The media respected the suppression order. It is rare for the media not to respect a suppression order.
The social networking sites did not. The information was "out there" before the order could even be made and, once the information was on the net, it was out of control.
The "publication" of the information has compromised the investigation. It may not have done so fatally but it will make the job of everyone concerned more difficult.
All too often it has been the media which has been guilty of sensationalising and misrepresenting a story. It is done to sell the story to the public. I was once told by the editor of a major woman's gossip magazine that "we print first and ask about accuracy afterwards". The editor saw it as her business to sell the magazine and, if people were seen to be of interest to her readers, it did not matter whether what was said was true or not.
Now I wonder how many so-called celebrities are maligned, how much stress innocent people have been placed under, how many marriages have been broken up, assaults occurred, demands made etc etc because of inaccurate and deliberately sensationalist reporting. I know the answer - too many. That comes from so-called "professional" journalists.
Now we have many more amateur journalists all too ready to comment. They have little regard for truth or accuracy. They may have been told something and genuinely believe it. They can still be wrong.
The law has not kept pace with social networking. The Paul Chambers case has shown up the difficulties and the dangers of using a social networking site. Mr Chambers' case has been used as an example and a warning. It may make some people more careful and cautious - for a time. It will not halt the problem anymore than breathalyser units stop drink-driving.
We may now need to change the way the law operates in respect of court appearances. More information may need to be given in closed sessions of courts. This may need to be done in order to protect the innocent as well as prosecute the guilty.
If we do not begin to discusss these issues we could have an innocent person put away for a crime he or she did not commit or we could have a triple murderer walk the streets.
Above all, we need to be careful what we publish.


Sheep Rustler said...

A similar thing happened with a man who was questioned about (and later charged with) arson in relation to the Black Saturday bushfires. He lived in the area my husband's family lives in, some of whom were directly affected (and the rest of us indirectly, through their trauma). Everyone in the district knew who this person was. For similar reasons, his name was supressed for a while. Many people (not my husband's family, who are far too sensible to partake in witchhunts) did the same thing with social media. The man's name is now public knowledge, but the legal process did not benefit from what happened.

Re murders in small country towns - experienced the same thing in England. There was immense relief when the unfortunate couple were proved to have been killed by their son, who had, as usual, fallen through the cracks of the mental health system. That was much easier to deal with than the fear that a random murderer was running amok in our quiet town. Statistically most murder victims are murdered by people who are either related to them or well known to them, but that does not stop the fear. I can imagine what the inhabitants of Kapunda were going through.

catdownunder said...

Agreed Sheep Rustler - I am the sort who will go the long way around to avoid an accident that is being dealt with by others. People do not need gawkers or the general public commenting on issues which are already distressing enough for those immediately involved - and might compromise the legal process to the disadvantage of all concerned.

Joanna St. James said...

we once had a murder in my small community, and it was so hard. Everyone knew someone who knew the murderer.

catdownunder said...

Very, very hard I would think!