Facebook and Twitter users are not above the law: Judge warns social media users could face jail after ruling on pictures claiming to show James Bulger killers

 

Facebook and Twitter users will face lengthy jail sentences if they defy court orders banning publication of information, one of the country's most senior judges has ruled.

In a judgement that will have major ramifications for policing the internet, Sir John Thomas warned social media users that they were not above laws that govern conventional press.

His comments came after a test case brought by the Attorney General against two men who were part of a “concerted campaign” to publish images purporting to be of James Bulger's killers on the 20th anniversary of the toddler's death.

Dean Liddle and Neil Harkins narrowly escaped nine months in jail when Sir John, president of the Queen's Bench Division, and Mr Justice Tugendhat agreed to suspend the sentences for 15 months.

But Sir John said: “For the future, if there is publication on the internet or through social media, then we consider there will be little prospect of such a person, if the publication occurs after the date of this judgement, escaping a very substantial custodial sentence without there being a prospect of suspension. We hope that message will be clear.”

Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who is said to be considering proceedings against other offenders, has previously declared his intent to challenge the misconception that “so long as something is published in cyberspace there is no need to respect the laws of contempt or libel”.

“An internet posting takes seconds but can have major consequences,” he said. “It is irrelevant whether the postings in this case were of who they claimed to be. The order is meant not only to protect Venables and Thompson but also those members of the public who have been incorrectly identified as being either of them.”

The court heard that tens of thousands of people – 24,000 on Facebook alone – shared images said to be of adult Jon Venables and Robert Thompson in February this year. The pair, who were ten when their murder of two-year-old Bulger caused widespread revulsion in the country, were given new identities upon their release from custody and a ban was imposed on publishing anything that would identify them or their whereabouts. Yet the injunction was ignored by thousands on the internet.

Among them were Mr Harkins, 35, who reposted images on his Facebook site, and Mr Liddle, 28, who put them on his Opinionated Dad Twitter feed.

Mr Grieve decided to take a High Court case, applying for an order of committal against the pair, as a matter of public interest and because they had both shown from their posts that they were fully aware of the ban.

On his Facebook page with 141 friends, Mr Harkins, from Bridlington, wrote: “Intresting (sic) that this photo isn't allowed to be shown and there's an investigation on how it got out.”

Mr Liddle, a graphic designer from Sunderland who was said to be a key carer for his deaf son, had removed the photographs within an hour after being told that they were of the wrong people. But, upon being served with court papers from the Treasury Solicitor's Department after a member of the Attorney General's office spotted his original tweets, declared to his 915 followers: “Love them to take me to court. I'll tell them exactly why I posted pictures of sick child killers.”

Both men looked considerably less defiant as they were brought before the High Court, which heard that they had removed the images immediately, apologised for their behaviour and admitted being in breach of the injunction as soon as they were advised by solicitors. Neither, their barristers said, had realised the severity of their act of the potential for a two-year jail sentence.

Mr Harkins, the main carer for his three children while his wife worked at a pharmaceuticals store, accepted that he had been “grossly foolish”. Like Liddle, he said he had seen the images posted elsewhere hundreds of times but the judges said that was no excuse.

Sir John said that both men, in posting the pictures, knew of the danger of “serious physical harm or death” faced by Venables and Thompson, as well, as those who were mistaken for the two killers.

“Noone should contemplate taking the law into their own hands by encouraging the punishment of offenders by others,” the judge said. “Vigilantism has no place in a civil society and it is for the purposes of deterring such conduct that we must have particular regard.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee