A discussion of contemporary issues in media ethics, with olives and a twist. Made with only the freshest ingredients, shaken, stirred and poured over ice. I should also mention that I do like the odd, occasional martini. Bombay Sapphire gin and Lillet, dry and plenty of salty olives. Welcome to this cocktail of journalism and alcohol. A fine combination!

Monday, 17 September 2007

a warning to social networkers

There was a horrible murder in Auckland a week ago. A young man, Augustine Borrell, was stabbed in the chest outside a teener party in the fairly well off suburb of Herne Bay. An 18 year-old gave himself up to police a few days later.

It's teen death 11 0r 12 in Auckland in the last few years, there's an incident pretty much every weekend in terms of fights outside parties. On the Saturday just past a young guy was shot in the face with a pellet gun.

But what's got me interested in this story is the coverage given to an alleged confession by the stabber. According to reports in the NZ Herald, the unnamed guy posted an apology cum confession on the networking site Bebo.

Bebo has become both an online memorial to Borrell and a battleground between his friends and associates of the alleged killer. The New Zealand Herald is breathlessly reporting all of this from a perspective of Bebo's "dark side" of guns, drugs and crime.

I've had a look, admitedly a quick squiz, around Bebo and can't find the stuff that's been written about in the papers. Though, I don't doubt it's there.

A few days after the online torrent of love and hate around the Borrell stabbing, the young accused was in court charged with murder. A suppression order is in place to prevent his identity being publicised. According to newspaper reports at the time, the sites where messages were being posted about the alleged killer were taken down.

What I think is most chilling about this is the blunt warning given in the court by prosecutor, Ross Burns. He basically said that the government is able to monitor sites like Bebo and is able to trace posts.

"The Department of Internal Affairs monitors internet websites and is perfectly capable of tracing postings back to the original poster and if that happens and they are found to have breached the order then they are liable for criminal prosecution."
The other thing that's got me puzzled is why the NZ Herald has been allowed to print the text of the accused person's online apology/confession. Isn't this a case of contempt of court?

One posting, written in response to allegations about who was responsible for the murder, said:

"hey there ... i am real sory 4 tha incident ov augustine, an want u 2 know i had no intensions wat so ever 2 do so, an im not that kind of person an kuld neva du that 2 sum1 especialy 2 sumwun i dont knw an if u havnt heard iv handed maself in.and i am real real sorry, i didnt know wat hapend that nite. R.I.P augustine"

This case is a lot more serious that kids finding themselves arrested for driving stupidly and putting a video of their stunt on YouTube. I'm going to keep an eye on this case, the legal precedents are interesting. They highlight what I call the "techno-legal time gap". There's pretty much no regulation of what can be posted on social networking sites, it's suck it and see.

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