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Archive for September, 2010

Jurors, Google and the risk of prejudice

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

Writing in the Guardian, Afua Hirsch discusses the dangers of jurors searching online for details about a trial. In particular, she worries that detail a defendant posts on Facebook could taint a juror’s view and potentially prejudice a trial. Jurors can encounter this information not just by searching for it. In high-profile cases, the mainstream media often digs up and publishes old social network posts made by a suspect. While judges give directions to a jury not to look for information, Hirsch concludes ‘warnings from judges are just not cutting it.’

On this point, I think Hirsch is right. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Justice published the results of a study, Are Juries Fair? The report, based on a survey of 62 cases and 668 jurors, found that in high-profile cases 12% of jurors looked online for information about their case. 26% of jurors in high-profile cases said they saw information about their case online (even though they had not searched for it). This is just one study based on a sample of cases and you may wonder whether the respondents in the survey were completely frank about their searching habits.

While jurors are told to ignore information obtained outside the court room, it is not clear how effective those warnings are. Even if a juror tries to follow this instruction, I find it hard to believe a juror can simply put aside information acquired on a person’s past or character. All this, however, stands in contrast to the faith in the jury so frequently expressed by the judiciary. The trouble is, the problem does not come with an obvious solution, save for a hope that clearer and more specific warnings by judges will be effective.

Categories: Media

Can newspapers take part in referendum campaigns

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Yes – but only up to a point. The reason is that newspapers appear to be subject to the expenditure limits in referendum campaigns. Any person or body spending over £10,000 in a referendum has to register as a permitted participant with the Electoral Commission. Permitted participants are then subject to a spending limit of £500,000 (the official campaign and political parties can spend more than that).

Yesterday, Jenny Watson told the House of Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform that newspapers would have to register with the Commission ‘if they wished to express a view editorially on whether the voting system should be changed’ (quotation taken from the Guardian report).

This is different from what happens in elections, where newspapers are exempt from spending limits. This creates a problem as the media then has a privileged position in which it can use as much of its resources as it wishes on infuencing the election – but everyone else is subject to a spending limit. As I have written before, that exemption needs to be rethought in the light of internet communications (which are not exempt from election spending limits). However, there is no similar provision exempting the media from the spending limits in a referedum.

So at least in the referendum campaign the privileged position of the media is curtailed. There will still be difficulties in applying it. For example, how do you decide the value of a newspaper editorial in favour of AV? Another problem is that newspaper influence can come about through the slant in a story or the presentation of details, rather than outright advocacy. If this falls outside the definition of regulated material, then it may do little to curb the newspapers. There is also the question of the response of the press – will this be challenged in the courts on free speech grounds?

Categories: Media