Sunday, April 26, 2009

Disorder in court - Twitter magistrate wrong to resign

Talk about disorder in court - Professor Steve Molyneux, a magistrates of some 16-years-standing, has been forced to resign after he Twittered about life on the bench, in what appears to a rather dramatic and ill considered reaction by an all too remote part of the judiciary to someone embracing new technology.

It seems to be a kneejerk and recoiling reaction much in the vein of the Daily Mail who variously report that Twitter can make you immoral through to Facebook gives you Cancer. Yet constantly magistrates' courts lament the lack of coverage for its work and with the demise of so many district and local newspapers in the current climate it seems that court coverage will diminish ever further. And remember it is important not only that justice is done, but that justice is seen to be done. Twitter could have helped that!

'ProfOnTheprowl' is Prof Molyneux's Twitter name, which does have a slightly sinister undertone, and if you read the fulsome account in the Daily Mail he did make some quite detailed tweets, including one that was prejudicial about considerations for bail, which as a journalist I would never have reported - and I spent countless hours reporting court! But hang on, these were only read by a relatively small audience - which is no doubt set to grow in light of all the publicity and blogging that it taking place. They were being made in the absence of any guidance - and remember magistrates are not legally qualified. Did he make mistakes? Almost certainly - should he have been pilloried in this way? Definitely not!

The clumsy attempt at crisis management (it was never a crisis, but they treated it as one!) might just have worked because so few people are concerned with what happens in Magistrates courts. For all the current furore,it was on the 18th March this year that he twittered about his resignation and only five weeks later it has made it into the real world - and that only after The Shropshire Star reported on it.

How could it better have been handled? Oh so much better!

I am reminded of an occasion as a very young journalist, held back by the onerous requirements of A-levels (yes, that young!) when my school kept finding itself in the headlines - through none of my efforts (any local newspaper should have a myriad of ways to learn what is going on in a school!). However, I found myself hauled before the headteacher and literally accused of telling tales out of school! Youthful indignation meant I would never confirm nor honestly deny and I asked for proof and it only ended when my editor stepped in and took the unique step of saying I had never supplied information on the school. I always felt - and this was without the benefit of the crisis management subsequently learned at Thames Valley Police as a press officer - that a better way to have handled it would have been to embrace my involvement with the newspaper to promote the school!

In this case of Prof Molyneux, would it not have been better to asked him to come up with a policy for allowing Magistrates to use Twitter? Or to simply explore whether it was wise for Magistrates to use new media to discuss their work? When you consider that across the UK the demographic of magistrates is predominantly white and retired, using new media might attract younger people to the bench - how amazing would that be?

After all, it is not as if Magistrates do not blog - check out 'The Magistrate's Blog' which is popular and up to date on 'musings and snippets from an English Magistrate' - although significantly it is anonymous. You have to wonder is anyone else in

I once heard about a case where a judge fell asleep during a trial and it was the media who reported that who were spanked for defamation - but that is another, legally perilous story!

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