Irish Series: Should we digest our news with a pinch of salt?

New media is literally at our fingertips, with access to the most up to date new stories in print, broadcast media or on our phones at any time of the day. The media has an extremely important role to play in how we stay informed and feed our insatiable appetite for information. However, at what point does the media cross over the line from reporting on the facts as presented, for example during the course of a criminal trial, to spreading misinformation or providing misleading accounts, be it via traditional print media or broadcast news. Or is there really such a thing as “FAKE NEWS”?

“Fake News” is defined as information spread with the intention of misleading or causing damage, and according to many sources, it threatens democracy, free debate and western order. There is a distinction to be drawn between media outlets reporting false or purposely misleading information to reporting on matters which portrays either a bias in circumstances where it could be extremely damaging, or inaccurately or over-reporting facts. One of the pillar-stones of our justice system is justice should be administered in public, and should be seen to be done. The media plays a vital role in reflecting the public interest and representing the public view. The media also carries a great responsibility in how it chooses to report the facts.

The Irish media has been awash with coverage of the ongoing trial of high profile Ulster rugby players amongst others, who are charged with rape and sexual assault of a young woman. Further charges have also been levied against the 4 individuals involved. The trial has been ongoing for several weeks and naturally, there has been significant coverage and commentary on the proceedings as well as events surrounding them, across all forms of media, be it social or otherwise. It is of course vital that the trial is reported on, as the public have the right to know and scrutinise the public administration of justice. Caution should be exercised, as with all criminal trials, particularly those attracting heavy media attention.

At what point could such reporting become prejudicial to the fair administration of justice or potentially impinge upon the rights of an accused to a fair trial? How do we protect the integrity of the jury trial in the digital era in which we live? How can we balance the right of an accused to a fair trial against the idea of open justice? There are legal restrictions on what the media can and cannot report on and this is key to protecting the victim, the accused and other individuals involved. Reporters must be very careful about what they report on in a case, as there is a risk that they could print something which could affect the result of a trial in court, or make it impossible for the accused to get a fair trial.  They also have to exercise caution to ensure the integrity of the evidence, protect the victim should they require anonymity, and protect their good name.

Jurors have to be able to deliver a verdict solely based on the evidence presented in court, and if they are subjected to print, online or broadcast media which could potentially affect their fair assessment of the evidence presented, there is a real risk that they could be influenced. In addition, an accused has the right to defend her/himself and is afforded the means to do this in court by countering and addressing any evidence submitted or proferred against them. However, in the media, be it print or social, they are not provided with this opportunity and there is a real risk that judgment is cast before the trial concludes. We have seen this often with what is called “Trial by Twitter”.

Is the right conferred on an individual to a fair trial under Article 6 of the Human Rights Convention and the Human Rights Act at risk? While the victim in criminal cases needs to be protected, so does the accused. The media bears the weight of this responsibility and this is something which ought to be borne in mind by those of us who ingest the media in all its forms.

For further insight into legal issues in Ireland or the UK, contact our dual-qualified solicitor Caoimhe Boyce on cboyce@meaby.co.uk.

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