Rules on social media need to move out of an analogue age

If someone makes an offensive or, worse, legally prejudicial, comment on a third party website about one of your stories, you’ve got nothing to worry about, have you?

Increasingly, the answer to that question is yes, you have.

A few months ago, I was fairly gung-ho over our ability to shrug off complaints about comments posted under our stories on Facebook.

But, several law refresher sessions and a few brushes with the judiciary later, and I’m not so sure.

Today, IPSO pulls another wooden block from the slightly chaotic jenga game of posting certain court stories on social media.

In a ruling that stops short of saying don’t do this, the regulator urges newspapers to think carefully about whether coverage of sexual assault court cases can be safely posted on their Facebook pages.

As Hold the Front Page reports, the ruling follows claims that a child victim could have been identified from comments posted by a punter under a Scottish paper’s court story.

The regulator’s concern is that Facebook might act as a forum which tempts readers unaware of the welter of legal restraints on court reporting to say the unsayable.

The law in many such circumstances now applies more equally to members of the public playing fast and loose with legal restrictions on social media.

But we in the media remain in the front line.

And it’s not just on sex offences and juvenile crime cases.

A number of editors have had to explain themselves to judges in recent months after potentially prejudicial comments have been posted under running court stories dealing with ‘safer’ crimes.

While once we might have been able to wash our hands over what our readers write on the external website that is Facebook, judges are increasingly holding editors responsible.

By publishing such stories on our Facebook pages, we are in their eyes effectively taking ownership of that space, and tacitly encouraging people to share, like – and comment.

At least one editor that I know no longer posts any running court stories on Facebook.

Others take the risk because of the huge contribution that Facebook can make in driving web traffic to what can be very compelling and engaging human interest stories.

IPSO’s intervention is helpful to a point.

But both it – and more importantly, the law – need to be clearer over exactly what is safe and acceptable.

Facebook is now by far and away the most important way of selling our digital wares.

But we are still operating under rules and laws from an analogue age.

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