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Social media and the second Hillsborough inquest

The depth of feeling that exists about the disaster and what came after is entirely understandable. The attorney general has a difficult task ahead deciding what consititutes contempt of court in this unique circumstance.

A spectator at a memorial event at Anfield. Photo: Getty

Twenty-five years ago this April 96 football fans went to a match and never came home.

Next month a coroner will begin another inquest into the deaths of the Liverpool fans at Hillsborough to try to find out what happened. This has been a long, long time coming.

The campaign for another investigation into what happened back in April 1989 and the announcement of a second inquest has naturally attracted a great deal of attention and substantial preparations have been made to accommodate families and other interested parties at the hearing which is due to start on 31 March.

There will also be a great deal of media attention – in the mainstream, online and on social media.

The coroner, Lord Justice Goldring, who was specially-appointed to conduct this hearing, has been giving the issue to the ensuing publicity come thought and voiced his concerns this week with a warning on the Hillsborough Inquest website.

It read:

The Inquests are shortly to begin. The case will be heard by a jury. They must decide it solely on the evidence they hear in court. It is of fundamental importance that the proceedings are reported accurately and in a balanced way.  Nothing (whether by way of comment or otherwise) should be published (including by way of online commentary or social networking sites) which could run the risk of prejudicing the outcome of the proceedings.

The Coroner has the power to refer anything published to the Attorney General if, in his view, it may amount to a contempt of court.

The aim of this warning is entirely understandable. This is one of those relatively rare inquest hearings that have a jury, and while coroners sitting alone can be expected to ignore what they see in the media, jurors are felt to be more vulnerable to prejudicial material.

It is also interesting to see the notice make particular reference to social networking. Those of us who have made a career of reporting the courts can gawp in amazement at the coach and horses Twitter users drive through contempt, libel, and sexual offence anonymity on a regular basis.

Even if they know the law, and many do not, they think it does not apply to something as seemingly superficial as a Tweet or a Facebook post. The courts do not agree.

But I see trouble ahead. As a reporter in the north-west, latterly for the Liverpool Daily Post, I covered the Hillsborough disaster, its aftermath and the long campaign by victims’ families. I know well the depth of feeling that exists in that city about the disaster and what came after.

This inquest will, naturally, provoke emotional reactions among some of those affected, which they may choose to express on social networks. Those expressions may never amount to a contempt of court, but what if they do?

If some such message is referred to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who has the say on whether contempt proceedings are taken, he will be in a very unenviable position.

So, while the warning is understandable, it is to be hoped that those organising the inquest will take suitable steps to help the jury avoid any prejudicial material.

The usual warning from a judge not to do internet research, not to read social media postings about a hearing needs to be supplemented. Jurors need to be taught how to screen out subjects – it is relatively easy to do and would avoid putting temptation in their path.

So as well as issuing warnings to those who might commit contempt, offering a guiding hand to jurors to avoid its impact would be a sensible move.