Tuesday, 26 February 2013

"Trial by tweet"

- or should that be "trial by twitter" seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. 
I am fed up with the Oscar Pistorius story. If he had been any other South African we would never have heard of it in this part of the world - and neither we should have. The whole thing is a tragedy and I am particularly disgusted at the use being made of a grieving family.
This morning's paper is making suggestions that our court system might soon allow people to tweet from the court room. The whole idea alarms me.
I believe two things. One is that our adult courts should be open for all to see what is going on. Only in exceptional circumstances should our adult courts be closed to the public. I believe they should be closed if a child is giving evidence or if a witness is under protection or might otherwise be endangered - and in most cases this is what happens.
That does not however mean that I believe the media should be in there with cameras. I don't.
The second thing I believe is that there should not be any reporting of a case until it has reached its conclusion. The media should not be able report the progress (or otherwise) of a trial - and certainly not by short tweets. It can give entirely the wrong impression.
Let me explain why.
Years ago I went to what should have been a pleasant evening with friends. Other people I barely knew had also been invited. They arrived late and looking very distressed. The woman's brother had been arrested at his work place that afternoon. No explanation had been given. The police had simply arrived and taken the man away. 
His wife was told by her husband's employer.
He was released more than a day later. It was a case of mistaken identity. He had a similar name to the person the police actually wished to question. His name was splashed across the media and it took a very long time to repair the damage that was done to his reputation - even after an "apology" was issued. It also damaged the reputation of the company he worked for but they had the decency to recognise it was not his fault.
Had the media been prevented from mentioning his name much less harm would have been done. As it was an innocent man had his reputation tarnished by an inept investigation and irresponsible reporting. An equally innocent business lost money.
We all know bad news sells but to sell it at the expense of the innocent, the injured and the grieving is immoral and unjust. It can do enormous harm.
To give an accurate and balanced account of what is going on in 140 characters - or even a string of those - is difficult. It may not even be possible. I am going to leave such "reporting" well alone and I think justice demands we all should.

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