The coverage of Ian Watkins being convicted of child abuse has been a stalwart of front page news over the past 24 hours. Watkins, 36, of Merthyr Tydfil was brought before courts in Cardiff for allegations of abusing children of fans.
Whilst the media has been compliant with statue in force to protect the children affected, some have foolishly taken to twitter to reveal the names of those who ‘offered’ their children to Watkins for abuse. Two mothers, both fans of rock band Lost Prophets have also been convicted for their part in the abuse.
Under English and Welsh Law the 1981 Contempt of Court Act protects the identities of children in cases of sexual abuse. It’s against the law to reveal the identities of the children, or anyone under 16. It is also an offence to reveal or disclose any information that may lead to the discovery of the identities of the children. In this case this is the names of the two mothers who allowed this to happen.
We have seen in previous cases that Twitter has caused a problem for law enforcement authorities. Many have critiqued the Contempt of Court Act for not having strong enough powers to deal with the digital age. In 2010 there was a witch hunt by many tabloids against Christopher Jefferies, a former school teacher from Bristol. Jefferies was accused of murdering Joanna Yeates. The media had a field day, publishing front page spreads and confronting Jefferies on his accused actions.
People also took to twitter, and the courts simply were unprepared for this. In a newspaper or online publication one person is responsible for the whole output – the editor. Nothing should pass over their desk without it being checked, and rechecked for any libel, slander, defamation or breaches of statue. However, if 1,000’s of people tweet the same thing, or similar it becomes almost impossible to prosecute them all.
It was later revealed that Jefferies was not involved with any part of the murder. A Dutch man, Vincent Tabak, 32, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, with a minimum recommendation of 20 years. However, this acquittal of Jefferies did not make up for the character assassination he had suffered at the hands of the press, he later brought claims of damages before the high court, and was awarded damages by eight newspapers, thought to be into six-figure sums.
The Contempt of Court Act is in place to protect the judicial process; to ensure those who are on trial receive a fair hearing, and to protect those affected by crime. In the McAlpine case high profile twitter users announced that McAlpine, a former peer in the House of Lords, was accused of child abuse, in the North Wales sex abuse scandal.
Sally Bercow wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, Alan Davies comedian famous for his appearances on QI and another journalist all named McAlpine on Twitter, along with many others. Due to their high profile status on the micro-blogging site they were brought before court and McAlpine claimed damages also assumed to be into six-figures. The allegations were totally unfounded, and by tweeting these they would have jeopardised any potential legal battle and defamed McAlpine in front of hundreds of thousands of followers. Those who did not have such significance on Twitter were also charged, to a lesser extent, they were asked to donate £5 to charity in recompense for their wrong-doing.
So, why is all this relevant?
You may have seen today that Peaches Geldof, daughter of 80’s Live Aid charity hero Bob Geldof, tweeted the names of those who were convicted in the Watkins Case. It would have been fine to name Watkins, it would have been more than legal to do so. However, Geldof, 24, supposedly tweeted the names of the mothers convicted of allowing to abuse on their children, allowing their easy identification. To do this is contempt of court. The law stands to protect the identities of the children, as they cannot be held responsible for the acts that happened against them.
Many on Twitter, alongside Geldof, who has worked as a journalist for several national publications, seemed confused about why this was wrong. Many couldn’t understand why this was bad. Many people seem to be delusional. Geldof can be seen as a high-profile Twitter user, as she has over 163,000 followers.
So, what could happen to Peaches?
Since she has broken the law she could be prosecuted. Despite the fact that she “tweeted then deleted” it doesn’t make a difference. Bercow did the same, but was still prosecuted. Breaking the act is a bit like speeding – if you get caught doing 90mph down the M6 you’ll get done even if it was “just for a few minutes”.
As ever, sentencing upon conviction is at the discretion of the court, but in previous cases people have been given suspended 9 month sentences for similar deeds.
What can I do to not get caught out?
Don’t tweet it. If in doubt, don’t. Contempt of Court is taken very seriously. A lot of money is spent on ensuring the judicial system does the job intended. By tweeting and leaking details such as this you run the risk of being brought before a judge yourself.
This all seems like a lot of fuss, has it ever been broken to public good?
Yes – the Trafigura scandal. This was where a wealthy Swiss owned oil company dumped highly toxic waste on the west African coast – it eventually resulted in the death of 3 people. They got a super-injunction to prevent it being leaked to the press. But one very brave man broke this. He has the courage to tweet the name of the company, it was picked up by thousands across Twitter – even Stephen Fry. Retweet after Retweet it became ever more impossible to prosecute everyone who had broken the injunction, nobody was prosecuted. To break the injunction was contempt of court – but it was also in the public interest to break it, too.
Is this not in the public interest, surely we should know who has done wrong?
Simply, no. To know the names of the mothers who allowed their children to be abused does nothing more than to prevent the children getting on with their lives, and starting a witch hunt against the foolish parents who let this happen.