Media law for Twitter users – will they heed it?

The BBC published a feature today on the categories of law that Twitter users not versed in that journalism staple McNae’s are coming unstuck on, covering the rules on matters like libel, not naming sexual offence victims and contempt of court.

Knowing about media law, previously the preserve mainly of journalists, is a must for anyone who uses social media, writes blogs or posts any material online – which covers a pretty large section of the public.

Anyone who falls into this rather wide bracket, who might think “but why should I bother knowing the law, I won’t get done because I’m not a journalist and so it doesn’t apply to me”, should bear in mind that pleading ignorance isn’t a defence. Five minutes reading the feature would therefore be time well spent.

As media lawyers Niri Shan and Lorna Caddy explained in the Telegraph, commenting on Twitter and Facebook isn’t the same as a chat down the pub.

“These days, whether it’s on a social media website or in relation to an online article, we all expect to have our say and post our own content,” wrote Shan and Caddy. “The legal position of an individual who posts content online (whether on Facebook, Twitter, on comment sections of online news pages) is clear.

“He or she is responsible for that content. Today’s case [regarding Ched Evans – see below] is notable because the defendants were not aware that naming the lady was a criminal offence. This was irrelevant: ignorance was not a defence.

Twitter in the dock   (illustration by Robert Johannsen)


“When we post material online, we act as publishers and our publications are subject to the same laws as those of professional publishers, such as newspapers.”
The BBC feature lists a number of laws, along with the cases involving social media that tested the limits of those laws, and analyses which ones are changing as a result of a shifting digital landscape.

However, although Twitter has seen some laws bend, with prosecutors now urged to consider whether threats to damage property or harm someone carries real menace before pushing ahead with the matter following the Paul Chambers case, other rules look set to stay firmly in place.

The ban on naming sexual offence victims is an obvious case in point. Footballer Ched Evans was convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman in April 2012, and 6,000 tweets named the victim after users decided she was “crying rape”. Seven men and two women were fined by Welsh magistrates for naming the victim, and this law isn’t set to change. I wonder how many social media users are aware that victims of voyeurism and ‘flashing’ are guaranteed anonymity too – I’d hazard a guess and say not many.

I’m curious about how many social media users are aware that ignorance about these matters won’t protect them –  call me pessimistic, but I anticipate plenty more cases arising from online chatter hitting the courts.
  1. Zahari Daskalov

    This is ridiculous. We are talking about freedom of speech right? not being able to use an individual's name is simply madness. Takes us back a couple of centuries. We need to dig out of the mental holes that we live in and speak freely about inconvenient topics.

  2. Melanie Hall

    Thanks for your comment – not quite sure which law you're referring to there though, do you mean the one banning identification of sexual offence victims? Of course I think there should be anonymity for complainants in those cases – otherwise many would be deterred from reporting the crime in the first place.

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© Melanie Hall 2017