Chris Marshall: Social media speculation poses a risk to justice

Supporters of far-right spokesman Tommy Robinson demonstrate in Trafalgar square in central London
Supporters of far-right spokesman Tommy Robinson demonstrate in Trafalgar square in central London
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Despite the passage of more than 20 years, the OJ Simpson case, the so-called “Trial of the Century”, hasn’t lost its ability to shock.

Simpson was acquitted of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman in 1995, but found liable for the deaths in a civil case two years later.

Anyone with an interest in the criminal trial should seek out Ezra Edelman’s 2016 documentary, OJ: Made in America, which is as exhaustive as it is fascinating.

While the film doesn’t shy away from the gory details of the murders, it is the free-wheeling US media coverage of the trial which is arguably the most incredible aspect of the story.

For British viewers it’s all a far cry from the sober court reporting which accompanies even the most sensational trials on this side of the Atlantic.

Strict rules surrounding contempt of court would have precluded the sort of wild claims and character assassinations which turned the OJ trial into the spectacle it was.

But British laws which have, for the most part, protected justice from prejudicial media coverage are now facing a growing threat from unhelpful speculation on social media.

Last month, former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson was jailed for 13 months for potentially prejudicing a court case after broadcasting live on Facebook from outside Leeds Crown Court.

Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, filmed himself and people involved in the trial in a video which was watched 250,000 times within hours of being posted online.

A judge told him his actions could have caused the ongoing trial to be re-run at a cost of “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds”.

After reporting restrictions on the Robinson case were lifted, high-profile supporter and professional irritant Katie Hopkins went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show to opine about threats to freedom of speech and warning of “very dark times in the UK”.

As tempting as it is to ignore the likes of Robinson and Hopkins, their reach is wide and the threat they pose to justice not insubstantial.

But while their social media footprint is far greater, this is a problem by no means confined to a few figures with dubious popular appeal.

Many a high court or sheriff court case is accompanied by a sort of online commentary from a coalition of the ignorant, uninitiated or just plain clueless. In rape cases, for example, it is not uncommon for the alleged victim’s name to be shared on Twitter and Facebook despite the Sexual Offences Amendment Act providing anonymity to complainants in such cases.

Were we to live in an ideal world, the problem would be policed by the social media companies, but they have shown themselves unwilling or simply unable to act.

The current law, dating back to 1981 and the pre-internet age, has also proved itself incapable of deterring contempt online. But while the risk of a juror reading something they shouldn’t on social media remains, it is possible the greater threat to justice comes from an overall erosion of trust in the judicial system.

The actions of Robinson et al play into the hands of those who believe there is another narrative at play, one the courts and the media don’t want you to know about.

Reporting restrictions, including those initially put in place following Robinson’s imprisonment, are there to serve the interests of justice, not as part of a conspiracy of silence.