Steering a straight course on the Twitter track

While some hail the Twittersphere as a perfect vehicle for citizen journalism others warn legal potholes await the novice traveller. Gina Xing reported from the New News “Tweets from the Streets” panel.

Andy Carvin, widely known as the world’s leading twitter journalist, joined the Law Institute of Victoria’s Kerry O’Shea, The Age’s Adrian Lowe and YourView founder Tim Van Gelder.

Margaret Simons, the director for the Centre for Advanced Journalism, asked the panellists what they thought about twitter and the law.

Ms O’Shea said the climate of uncertainty around clear court policy on what can and can’t be tweeted put journalists in precarious situations.

“You inadvertently get into trouble because they (the court) didn’t have anything on the website or they didn’t have a policy yet,” she said.

She said the County Court tweeting policy was updated in July this year.

This allowed smart phones to be brought to court for drafting online feeds but banned publishing from the court room.

Ms O’Shea said there have been times when suppression orders were put in place after court proceedings had been tweeted.

 “We haven’t had a trial abandoned by the court yet, but I really think it’s just a matter of time,” she said.

The Age’s Adrian Lowe said there was also the issue of whether citizen journalists would obey suppression orders in the same way as journalists.

He said unlike many members of the public, trained court reporters were also regulars in the court room whose twitter handles can be easily controlled.

But Mr Carvin said in his use of twitter the problem of who is considered the real journalist is not an issue.

“I think the right question (to be asked) is what is journalism and when is it being practiced,” he said.

He said most of his sources from tweeting the Arab Spring riots were non-journalists doing journalism.

Mr Van Gelder agreed that sifting through the tweets from a crowd, or “crowd sourcing”, could help a journalist check facts.

He also said that social media was a “huge distraction” and nodded at  Mr Carvin who was tweeting during the panel discussion.

Margaret Simons asked who the court considered to be a journalist.

Ms O’Shea said the difference between a journalist and a member of the public should be the knowledge and applications of the laws of contempt and defamation.

 “Judges want to keep their options open so they can have a sound in who is and who isn’t one,” she said.

But all panellists agreed that anyone who tweets is a publisher and subject to laws of contempt and defamation.