Tweeting in court: What the interim guidance could mean for journalists

There was a lot of interested generated last week when a district judge at one of the Julian Assange hearings permitted people to tweet proceedings. Live reporting of courts in other words. As I discussed last week, it’s not the first time that live court reporting has taken place, but it’s certainly not common.

The Lord Chief Justice has now confirmed that there is to be a review into the use of live, text-based forms of communication – with Twitter specifically mentioned – for the purpose of fair and accurate reporting.

In the meantime, interim guidance has been issued for courts – which can be found here.

Potentially, this is a quite exciting development, and here are some interesting points I’ve found in the interim guidance:

1. There isn’t a statutory prohibition of the use of live text-based communications in open court – but it can only take place if the court (ie the judge) agrees it doesn’t pose a danger of interfering with the administration of a case.

2. Ipads or touch-screen handheld devices seem to be the preferred type of equipment for journalists to use if live reporting is to take place. The interim guidance states that:

the use of an unobtrusive, hand held, virtually  silent piece of modern equipment for the purposes of simultaneous reporting  of proceedings to the outside world as they unfold in court is generally
unlikely to interfere with the proper administration of justice.

The guidance doesn’t rule out laptops or mobile phones, but the phrase ‘virtually silent’ could be interesting here.

3. The guidance states that if live reporting is allowed, the equipment used can only to produce live text updates – no checking email, then!

4. The point at which requests for live reporting of a case could be refused appears to be when live court updates could inform witnesses yet to take to the stand of what has been said by an earlier witness. This does happen at the moment if a witness due to take to the stand on a Tuesday can read what was said on Monday through traditional reporting methods, but is perhaps much more relevant now if someone just about to take to the stand can see updates from the court on a phone.

5. One size won’t fit all: The interim guidance appears quite clear – if journalists are allowed to live text, it doesn’t mean everyone in the court can. The guidance says the judge can limit the text-based updates to members of the media only to avoid the risk of lots of people using electronic equipment in court.

6. If a judge allows live text updates, he can also stop them if he feels it’s disrupting proceedings.

7. The guidance is interim and the full and final decision could be influenced by cases when live texting is allowed in the months to come.

So, for newsrooms thinking about live text updates, I guess the main points to remember are:

1. Have your argument for live coverage lined up before you get to court. The Lord Chief Justice keeps mentioning open justice, and that can be the bedrock of any argument.

2. Make sure you have the quietest equipment possible for the live updates service. A loud-clicking laptop could be problematic.

3. Make sure your equipment is only used for live texting. The temptation for other uses – IM, email, web browsing – may be great, but the guidance appears quite clear.

4. Remember that pictures in court are still banned and not up for discussion, but that the guidance also says the court can allowed sound recording in court with prior permission.

5. Think carefully about the best way to live blog a court case. I still think 140 characters poses too great a risk of trying to sum everything up in 140 characters. Coveritlive presents a better alternative, or, if you must use Twitter, twitlonger could do the job.

Note: I’m not a legal expert, but have read the guidance issued carefully, and tried to look at the implications for reporters as a result.

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