Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Rugby rape trial verdict: 'Misinformed, misconceived and malicious'... how comments on social media cast bilious clouds over a difficult and complex trial

By Eilis O'Hanlon

There are times when reporting and commenting on ongoing trials can feel like tiptoeing through a legal minefield, and it doesn't get any easier once the verdict comes in.

Social media users have no such compunctions. They can say what they like, and, at the end of what's become known as the Ulster rugby rape trial, after nine long weeks in court, that's exactly what they did.

Many of the worst comments cannot even be reprinted because they're so grossly defamatory, either about the young woman who made the original complaint, or about Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, who yesterday were found not guilty of her rape.

Whatever side was being taken in the online war of words, the published remarks were equally irresponsible.

Furious that this "vile commentary" is allowed to go unchecked, Jackson's lawyers yesterday released a strikingly strong statement, claiming that such comments "have polluted the sphere of public discourse and raise real concerns about the integrity of the trial process."

They also denied that the acquittal of their client means there's nothing to worry about, pointing out that several days were lost to legal argument over certain social media posts.

That at least explains some of the frustrating delays which held up proceedings.

Jackson's lawyers pointed the finger particularly at Twitter, and that does seem to be the worst offender. But is there anything, realistically, that can be done to mute the blizzard of white noise on social media that now accompanies every aspect of public life?

Individual tweeters could, arguably, be hunted down and punished for contempt of court, "pour encourager les autres", as the saying goes, especially when "public figures who should know better", as the lawyers' statement described them, are foolish enough to share "misinformed, misconceived and malicious" content.

Pursuing tweeters with fewer followers and little clout, however, may be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Indeed, it's worth recalling Enoch Powell's famous declaration that a politician complaining about the Press is like a ship's captain complaining about the sea.

The internet is here to stay. If anything, its influence is only going to get more pervasive.

The idea that it can be tamed or controlled, or that the clock can be turned back to more genteel times, is unrealistic, either when it comes to trials, or, as the row over Facebook's negligence with all our data is proving, in politics too.

Blane McIlroy, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Rory Harrison always denied the charges against them.
Blane McIlroy, Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding and Rory Harrison always denied the charges against them.
Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson (centre) speaking outside Belfast Crown Court after he was found not guilty of raping a woman (Brian Lawless/PA)
Blane McIlroy
Stuart Olding
Rory Harrison. Pic Kevin Scott

It could be that there's a place for more education of social media users to promote greater responsibility, but there will always be impulsive idiots saying things that they shouldn't online.

There's even an argument to be made that this freedom, messy as it is, does more good than harm.

Restrictions on free speech generally benefit those with something to hide.

Paddy Jackson's lawyers have called for discussions between the Lord Chief Justice, Attorney General and Public Prosecution Service to discuss more "robust mechanisms" to stop content that may prejudice trials, and that would be a welcome step; but if clamping down on internet chatter has a chilling effect on liberty, that would be too high a price to pay.

So would sequestering juries in cases attracting excessive amounts of public interest, to cut off their access to the internet.

Jury duty already represents a huge sacrifice without also disconnecting jurors from their ordinary lives and families, especially as the negative consequences of social media are easily exaggerated.

People see biased and inflammatory nonsense posted on Twitter all the time, without losing their independence of mind or ability to evaluate the truth.

Ultimately, the only answer may still be to trust jurors, having selected them to best represent a defendant's peers, to follow the judge's instructions not to look at social media, or at least not pay too much heed to it even if they do.

Few of the people throwing around wild pronouncements on Twitter will have looked at the complex range of evidence.

On both sides, they're usually just reacting to headlines, rumours, prejudice; to emotion, rather than reason.

The legal system is not immune to making mistakes, but, when they happen, it's unlikely to be the fault of social media alone.

Belfast Telegraph

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