The Attorney General Dominic Grieve has warned that Twitter users who have posted or retweeted pictures claiming to be of Jon Venables, who murdered James Bulger as a child 20 years ago, may be fined and could face a prison sentence.
An order is in place to protect the identity of James Bulger’s killers, Venables and Robert Thompson, indefinitely and anyone who posts photos online, claiming them to be of Venables or Thompson, will be in breach this order and may face criminal charges for contempt of court.
In a statement, the Attorney General’s office stated that there is a significant risk that those identified in the images, be it Venables or innocent unconnected individuals, will be ‘placed in danger’. Even if the pictures are not of Venables, those involved in distributing the photos are still at risk of criminal charges.
This is believed to be the first time that contempt of court has been threatened against users of the social media platform, but could pave the way for similar claims, should legal proceedings follow this warning.
The strict approach suggested by Grieve, the government’s chief legal advisor, is at odds with the interim guidelines and comments issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer. The DPP has suggested that offenders in only the most serious cases should face criminal prosecution. Balancing police and court time with freedom of speech is essential and individual rights should be protected.
Either way, the speed in which the inappropriate material is removed seems to be key in determining both criminal and civil actions, whether the offender is a media outlet, a business or an individual.
It will be interesting to see if the Attorney General takes any formal action against Twitter users who have breached the protection order, particularly those who retweeted the original post. The mere threat of legal action may not be enough and must be followed through at some stage if it is to have any effect. Taking action in what is a particularly sensitive and high profile case may provide the widespread coverage needed to stop the relaxed and largely unregulated attitude to online defamation, bullying and exposure all too frequently exhibited online.