What is good for Sky News -- a leading United Kingdom broadcaster -- may not be at all good for a handful of Tweeters in the UK, who may go to jail for Tweeting the name of a rape victim.
Sky News -- rather stunningly -- “accidentally”
showed the name of the 19-year-old woman in its video feed when it ran a story about how Tweets about her had triggered a British justice row.
And in that story, Sky News displayed a Twitter screenshot that showed her name, plain as day.
The back story: This case has won enormous coverage in the UK because the perpetrator -- now convicted by a jury and sentenced to a five-year jail term -- is professional footballer Ched Evans, who played for Sheffield United.
The woman was judged too drunk to be capable of consenting to the sex that took place in a North Wales hotel room. The jury found Evans guilty.
Under UK law, a rape victim is guaranteed lifetime anonymity, and publishing his or her name is a criminal offense, involving fines of up to UK£5000 pounds. Note: There are no such laws in the US. When states have passed such laws, they have been challenged by media outlets and have been judged unconstitutional. As a matter of practice, however, just about all mainstream US publications withhold names of rape victims. Still, there are no prohibitions stateside on Tweeting a victim’s name, publishing it on the Internet, or doing just about anything else with it.
Here, too, sometimes there are departures from the norm. Seemingly minutes after Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant was arrested in 2003 on rape charges involving a Colorado hotel employee, her name surfaced across the Internet, and that was followed by publication in the Rocky Mountain News. Others soon crossed that line.
Meantime, in the UK, the other legal shoe has dropped, as police have now
arrested three men for Tweeting the victim’s name in the Evans case. Rob Taylor, writing in a local blog,
reports that a Twitter
frenzy has kicked in: “Some users have now deleted their tweets, and some users have been ‘retweeting’ others. It will be interesting, and possibly creation of case law, in seeing how these are treated.”
The North Wales police, for their part, have made their
position clear: They indicate more arrests are planned. Assistant Chief Constable Gareth Pritchard
said: “We are also reminding people of the legal position and that if anyone publishes the victim’s identity they could face prosecution.”
Jonathan Armstrong, a solicitor at media law specialists Duane Morris, told the Telegraph that putting a victim’s name on Twitter is "a bit like going out in Trafalgar Square with a megaphone and broadcasting to the nation because nobody knows who is following who on Twitter.”
Maybe, maybe not, but Home Secretary Theresa May, in a thoughtful appearance before the Home Affairs Select Committee, acknowledged that the laws on the books may not exactly sync with the reality of the Internet: “It’s another example of technological advance,” she
said, adding, “[A]re we keeping up on our ability to deal with that?”
The stark reality: In a global Internet, one country’s ban on publishing a name is another country’s giggle. I could -- with impunity -- put this victim’s name right here and there is little the Wales police could do about it.
Except I wouldn’t, because, as Home Secretary May poignantly noted, such promiscuous spreading of victims’ names could, and probably would, discourage victims from stepping forward to seek justice. Not surprising, if the victims knew that almost immediately they’d be named, mocked, and attacked on Twitter and other social media -- and not by one or two lunatics, but by many thousands.
I wouldn’t come forward. And for that reason, I applaud what the Wales police are doing, even though I am a traditional free press advocate. Sometimes, presented with new technologies, we have to bend.
Oh, as for Sky News, which has vast audience reach and is owned in part by
Rupert Murdoch, whose history of law-breaking in pursuit of scoops is
apologized to the rape victim. And nobody has suggested prosecuting the broadcaster.
— Robert McGarvey has been online and writing about the Internet for nearly 25 years.