Sunday, July 19, 2009

Clayton Weatherston trial: Spooking bloggers is now weekend news

It appears some bloggers have been spooked by the media in relation to comments they may have made on the Clayton Weatherston trial. I had a chat to Kiwiblog's David Farrar in the pub during the week, asking if he had deleted some posts on Kiwiblog relating to the trial after media reports . He revealed he had, because he was unsure what he should or should not say. That, apparently, is worth publishing in the New Zealand Herald.

But it was the comments on Kiwiblog that the Solicitor General was apparently concerned about, not his posts. Farrar's posts on Kiwiblog will be back up after the trial. Bloggers need to be aware that their online blogs, if hosted in New Zealand or intended for a New Zealand audience, are covered under the same media laws as other media. Posts should be treated the same as news articles if it is reporting, or opinion if an opinion is given - and there are different media laws on news and opinion - with comments treated the same way as the letters to the editor section in newspapers. Legally bloggers are responsible for all comments on their blogs, and if it is not practical monitoring such comments, the comments facility should be turned off for relevant posts.

Here's some guidelines to avoid unwanted attention.

With reference to the Weatherston trial it is fine to reveal that he is guilty. He has admitted as much. It is fine to report evidence and provide certain comment on that evidence provided it is factual. The latter is hard to do if you are not in court :-). I believe it is also fine in some circumstances to comment on a persons likely sentence although I would not advise that if you have little knowledge of media law. But it is a fact that Weatherston has pleaded guilty and has given evidence. What is not fine is to provide an opinion as to what a person will be guilty of, or unless that person has pleaded guilty, whether he should be found guilty at all. It is also unacceptable to report the evidence with comment indicating your preferred trial outcome - for example if a person pleads not guilty after someone was shot dead, and gave evidence that the deceased deserved what he got, you can't conclude that he did it and therefore should be found guilty. Some blogs have overstepped the line on the Weatherston case in this respect.

What is new in the mix recently are Facebook groups. I was invited to join at least three Facebook groups relating to the Weatherston trial. One was quite blatant, had several hundred members and has now been closed. While joining a Facebook group may not be an act of contempt any more than sitting in a courtroom witnessing contempt of court, it is also not a good look joining a blatant Facebook site on a trial and then blogging on a non-contemptual way on that same trial, even if joining that site is to merely to keep tabs on goings-on within that group. This is particularly if many of the people joining that group read your blog and you have made a comment on that Facebook site declaring your preference to a trial outcome.

I would encourage bloggers to continue blogging on trials as much as I would encourage reporters to report on trials. But bloggers need to understand contempt and defamation media laws to be aware of what they can and cannot say.

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