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  1. Media Law
June 25, 2014

‘My Lord, there’s been a tweet’: How Twitter, Lily Allen, Private Eye and GQ threatened to disrupt the hacking trial

By William Turvill

Peter Jukes,who covered the whole eight-month-long hacking trial on Twitter, has revealed how tweets thought to be prejudicial were brought to the court’s attention on “most days”.

Jukes said that one out of his 24,000 tweets had to be deleted during the eight-month trial.

Following the conclusion of the trial today, he tweeted:  “I can now report that huge ring binders of prejudicial tweets were weekly delivered to the judge by Brooks' defence team.”

He estimated that the hacking trial was made up “a third” by legal argument, revealing that defendants relied on articles 6 (right to a free trial) and 8 (privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights to “trump” article 10 (free speech).

Jukes said that “one of the main planks” of Rebekah Brooks’s defence was “that she couldn’t receive a fair trial with such a prejudicial environment” and that her barrister, Jonathan Laidlaw QC, had spent two days arguing she could not get a fair trial because of press coverage.

He tweeted today: “Most days at #hackingtrial began with complaint from defence counsel 'My Lord, there's been a tweet' – fortunately not me.”

Jukes, who live tweeted the entire trial from the Old Bailey’s annex, saw his Twitter following grow by more than 700 per cent during the trial.

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Writing in a blog Jukes said: "Whilst the story of phone-hacking is very dramatic, the court itself has nothing to do with drama.

"It's about painstaking establishment of timelines, phone calls, texts, etc. It's very fact driven and, I think, those individual facts work well as individual tweets.

"They are also searchable so if there is a piece of evidence I want to timestamp, I will tweet it out with the intention of collating them later for a book I intend to write after the trial.

"I also try and tweet as much as I can that is salient, funny, interesting or colourful. And, of course, I have to abide by the UK's strict laws around contempt of court."

Over the course of the trial, more than half a million tweets mentioned key terms relating to the hacking trial, according to analysis.

And around 60,000 tweets were sent in a 24-hour period that included  the acquittal of Rebekah Brooks and conviction of former Downing Street spin doctor Andy Coulson.

According to Press Association, there was a "constant risk that the trial could be derailed by a wayward tweet hung over the trial like a dark cloud".

Before the jury was even chosen, pop star Lily Allen made her own feelings known on the microblogging site, suggesting that Rebekah Brooks "should get life" if found guilty. Brooks was eventually acquitted of all charges.

It became a regular occurrence for lawyers to raise tweets that concerned them, and possible contempt of court committed by people all too willing to pass comment on the trial.

In February, after Brooks was acquitted on one charge when the judge ruled there was no case to answer, one such comment was ordered to be taken down.

"It seems to me that all I can do is respectfully remind the media of the strict liability rule and therefore comments of people who have been referred to in evidence should simply not take place."

One comedian found himself offering his "sincerest apologies" – by Twitter, of course – for a tweet he had posted, removing it from his account.

His gaffe prompted trial judge Mr Justice Saunders to offer some salutary advice to the would-be tweeters around the world, saying he hoped people would stop tweeting things they thought were "hilariously funny" about a case they knew nothing about.

Despite the concerns, the case managed to survive its eight-month life without proceedings being derailed by social media, including Twitter.

Mr Justice Saunders, who in his summing up of the case reminded the jury: "You will obviously ignore and take no account of the vitriol that has been levelled at Rebekah Brooks by people on Twitter or in other places.

"It is not evidence, it is not rational and you will ignore it."

As well as the statement by David Cameron after Andy Coulson's conviction, the actions of a little-known comedian, two magazines and the office of former prime minister Tony Blair also threatened to disrupt the phone-hacking trial after "ill-advised" comments in print and on social media, it can now be reported.

Private Eye and lifestyle magazine GQ were both referred to the Attorney General, after concerns over their content.

An unnamed comedian, whose entertainment credentials were questioned by Old Bailey judge Mr Justice Saunders, was also forced to issue an apology after he tweeted a comment about Blair's apparent offer to be an "unofficial adviser" to Rebekah Brooks.

Allegations of the conversation between Blair and the News International chief executive – in 2011, days before Brooks's arrest and at a time when Ed Miliband had declared "war" on media mogul Rupert Murdoch – were heard in court on February 19.

The following day, Brooks's defence counsel Jonathan Laidlaw QC raised concerns about a statement from Blair's office, issued – unusually – in response to the evidence in the continuing case.

The first disruptions came during the first days of the trial, after concerns about an issue of Private Eye.

The cover featured a photograph of Brooks under the headline "Halloween Special", with "Horror Witch Costume Withdrawn from Shops" underneath the picture.

Earlier, police had spoken to a vendor near Farringdon station in the City of London to warn them that the magazine cover could be in contempt of court.

GQ was referred to the Attorney General over an article by American author and columnist Michael Wolff about the phone-hacking trial which was deemed to be in contempt of court.

The piece was teased on the front cover of its April edition as being an exclusive at "the trial of the century".

But it was described in the courtroom – in the absence of the jury – as "utterly, utterly inappropriate" by Laidlaw.

The article, which the court was told was widely available from shops near the court, remarked of horse trainer Charlie Brooks: "How can you convict a man who is always called Charlie – never once Charles?"

Wolff also described Rebekah Brooks wife as "clever, sharp, winning, seductive, cunning – well prepared to do what is required".

Laidlaw said: "This is, on the face of it, contempt. It's objectionable, the comment, the tone, the language used – it's utterly, utterly inappropriate."

Earlier in the trial, the comedian's tweet – the content and author of which were not disclosed in court – was condemned by the judge.

The tweet was subsequently deleted and its author offered an apology, read before the court later that day.

Laidlaw said: "He (the comedian) says he's horrified he stopped the court trial.

"He wishes to send his sincerest apologies to the judge. He says it was not his intention for the whole world to hear about a case they know nothing about."

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