Sally Bercow aptly demonstrates that media laws are designed for a different century

"Don't break this law which we can't tell you."

So Sally Bercow appears to have quit the Twitters for good. She already was on thin ice following the legal threats from Lord McAlpine, who was understandably miffed that she named him on Twitter during speculation following a Newsnight report; but she plummeted straight through it when she was accused of breaching a section 39 order, under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, for naming a schoolgirl who allegedly ran away with her teacher.

A parenthetical, here: a lot of people, on Twitter and elsewhere, are angry that Bercow is in trouble for this, because they rightly point out that the girl had previously been named.

Section 39 orders are used to protect the identity of children who appear, or are likely to appear, in court as witnesses, victims or suspects. They are discretionary, and so can be placed by the courts when they think appropriate. Typically, this is as soon as a court case looks on the cards, which is why the vast majority of children involved in such cases are never named. Occasionally, however, it is in the child's interest to allow their name to be publicised; maybe to encourage witnesses to come forward, to appeal to the public for help, or to track down a missing person. When that need has passed, the section 39 order can be placed as normal.

But what is important is that this is done in the child's interest. Being a witness, victim, or suspect as a young person can be traumatising, and the system is set up to allow those people to not have their name forever linked with a bad period in their early lives. Yes, it is hard to make the internet forget anything, and the Streisand effect is probably, unfortunately, going to be invoked by people. But this isn't the state crushing free speech to protect the interests of the rich and powerful; it is the state attempting to protect a vulnerable child. So please, don't start spreading that child's identity around as a knee-jerk response to Bercow's troubles.

Parenthetical over. The problem raised by Bercow's reported breaching of the order is that, as mentioned, section 39 orders are discretionary. While, as a lay person with a good knowledge of media law, it's possible to guess that whether such an order has been placed by looking at whether a child's name suddenly disappears from the press, the only way to know for sure is to be a journalist at a newspaper which gets sent the orders.

This is, frankly, a system which isn't fit for purpose in an age when nearly everyone in the country regularly uses tools which are capable of breaching those orders. The same is true of other media blackouts, like injunctions: the press is told of them, but they apply to the public as well. It has rightly never been a defence that one didn't know the law they were breaking – but when it isn't even possible to know the law you are breaking, you can perhaps feel slightly annoyed if you then accidentally get in trouble.

It's hard to know what would be better, of course. Publishing a list of the identities which can't be published is clearly counterproductive; yet we don't want to abandon the system altogether. It may be that the best option really is that mooted by Keir Starmer: an agreement that twitterers with few followers won't be prosecuted. That still leaves those who have ended up with thousands of followers facing the full wrath of the law – or, like Bercow, quitting until they take a course in media law – but it would at least minimise harm done to the vast majority of people using social networks.

In one final twist to the tale, just before Bercow's account was deleted, she appears to have been hacked. This tweet was posted late last night:

So it may not be the case that Bercow herself even deleted her account. We'll see.

As this piece involves multiple ongoing and potential court cases, comments are disabled.

Sally Bercow's former twitter page.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.