Dominic Grieve QC, the Attorney General, has recently been speaking out about the use of social media and advocating a zero tolerance approach. When I met with him we discussed this and how his own position might be seen to be at odds with some of his colleagues in public office.
Dominic Grieve has enjoyed a steady rise to front bench politics and held several positions in the shadow cabinet before being promoted to Attorney General in 2010. Despite his role as legal advisor to the Government, he has taken a firm stance in supporting the voting rights of prisoners and more recently courted controversy in the legal world by suggesting a move to have the police prosecute low level crimes.
I met with Dominic Grieve at his office in Westminster. He has recently been in the news suggesting that contempt of court actions might be taken against those tweeting and retweeting alleged photos of Jon Venables and ordering internet giants, including Google and Facebook, to remove defamatory photos. I asked him if contempt of court proceedings were something he expected to be dealing with when he took the role?
“I vaguely thought that this would be something which the attorney would have to grapple with if necessary, but it may be that the reality is that society changes and community changes just means that this particular issue which, for a time had been dormant, has come back to the surface.
The Attorney takes his “public interest responsibilities” very seriously and knows that he can’t just ”shirk it.” This brought us on to social media specifically. The rise of social media in public consciousness has filled the tabloid vacuum once occupied by phone-hacking. But the Attorney acutely recognises that in legal terms, the medium adopted is irrelevant. “ Twitter is no different from any other form of potential contempt of court or indeed a criminal offence which may sometimes be committed by people who tweet or report things.”
“It is not something I am going to ignore”
“People’s behaviour on twitter is no different from if they published a leaflet and so ultimately people do not have immunity just because they are tweeting. Clearly, there may be a learning curve for the public in this although there has been an awful lot of press coverage now.
“I would like to hope that the message is getting home that you are not immune just because you happen to be doing it on the internet.”
I put it to the Attorney that his own comments in this area could be seen to be at odds with the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Kier Starmer, who has recommended guidelines to prevent the police and the CPS being inundated with complaints arising from the use of social media and a high threshold set for related prosecutions.
The Attorney acknowledged that the DPP has made the point that the CPS and the police don’t go “running round the country listening to every potential criminal statement that is being made by somebody propping up a bar in a pub” and that, ”we all know that people say things in some context which they shouldn’t.”
Addressing the bigger picture, and his own public interest responsibilities, the Attorney is clearly prepared to address any ”undermining of fairness and justice” caused or exacerbated by the proliference of social media, “either individually or collectively”.
“There isn’t some category of activity like tweeting which enjoys some extraordinary immunity. If it is causing a problem then [the DPP] will have to do something about it and if it isn’t causing a problem then it may not be necessary to do something about it.”
Concluding, the Attorney made his point quite clearly and has set the tone of what we might come to expect from his own future decisions and the likelhood of future legislation in this area.
“We are not trying to lay down, it is certainly not my business to lay down some sort of rules of strict behaviour. I would probably go mad in my job rather quickly if I got myself into that particular group but there is no area of immunity and that is the point that I am trying to get across.”
It seems that at the present time, the Attorney is taking a sensible and pragmatic approach to this quickly changing and ever-developing area which has instilled itself so deeply into public life. It seems unlikely that legislation will seek to regulate this area, at least in the medium term, and so the responsive agenda seems best placed to deal with social media issues. Education will be key and public awareness will evidently grow over time, but until then, the Attorney acting on behalf of the government, will have little alternative but to act quickly, forcefully and visibly where serious individual rights and the rule of law are threatened.
The full interview can be heard at Legal Cheek where it will be available to hear for a limited time