Press Gang: The trials of Google

Submitted by Anon on 9 January, 2004 - 5:09

By Lucy Clement

The dubious accolade of topping Google's UK chart in 2003 went to Prince Charles. His name was the website's most searched-for term of the year. When the newspapers were banned from printing the allegation that dare not speak its name, the nation temporarily abandoned its searches for Britney and Beckham and tried to find out what the fuss was all about.
You might well ask why anyone would care what Charles did or didn't do with his valet. I suspect a lot of people bothered to try and find out because they were told they weren't allowed to know, and therefore thought there might be something worth knowing. The only detailed version of the story I saw was on an Italian gossip site, although the Popbitch email apparently had most of it, albeit in coded form.

A UK website which published the Charles allegations could - and almost certainly would - have been shut down under the injunction. But the courts can't stop hundreds of thousands of speculative emails flying around cyberspace, or repeated temporary publication of information on different websites, or most things that are published abroad.

None of this probably matters very much when we're talking about idle speculation over celebrities' sex lives. But in the realm of criminal cases, it all gets rather more serious.

Take the Soham trial. It was delayed on more than one occasion because of potentially prejudicial newspaper coverage. The Mirror is under investigation for contempt of court over one article, while the Sun got a written warning from the judge.

That coverage was bad enough. In fact, though, a dozen or so national newspapers are much easier to manage than the internet. If you can say nothing else for them, they didn't actually derail the trial. But there were comments about the Soham trial on messageboards which - if reproduced in the papers - would very likely have been considered prejudicial. They're probably not prejudicial if they're restricted to a small-readership site - but there's a problem.

One of the principles of a fair trial is that it should deal with the facts of the case alone - not with the defendant's previous record, or supposed "bad character" (whatever David Blunkett might wish).

But if we can all log on and search for "Prince Charles", then equally we can log on and search for, say, "fred smith court charged luton" and turn up a list of Fred Smith of Luton's previous court record or - arguably worse - speculation about it. It's more and more likely to be the case that the local paper has reported Smith's previous court hearing and has an online news archive.

That's before you even get to the problem of messageboards. So what happens then? Should Smith's trial collapse because that information's too accessible?

It's a very difficult question, and there isn't a straightforward answer.

Information about defendants' previous convictions has always been available, but getting it involved a long trawl through the newspaper archives. And how much worse is online messageboard gossip than the same conversation down the pub? In the US the laws governing trial reporting are much more relaxed - but juries are more often sequestered, and some speculate that's what might happen here.

The internet's an astounding tool, and a liberating one, with its potential to organise across borders, to avoid state censorship or indeed the libel laws. But unmatched access to information - and speculation - brings problems too.

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