Mishcon de Reya’s Charlotte Harris says that Twitter is creating a new type of crime
In the next issue, the Spear’s Research Unit is once again taking the pulse of London’s reputation management scene, profiling the leading solicitors, barristers and PR figures in the field. When I caught up with Mishcon de Reya’s Charlotte Harris, she told me about the effect that Twitter is having on the media law landscape and the effortlessness with which a public profile can be harmed in 140 characters.
When I interviewed Harris for the last reputation management Index in late 2011, she didn’t seem worried about the effect Twitter could have on HNWs with a public image to protect. Rather, she regarded it then as ‘a platform for free speech.’
But now we’ve seen Lord McAlpine defamed on Twitter and a juror jailed for contempt of court for tweeting about the case he was trying, there is greater reason to be more cautious. Harris takes a much harder line on the social networking site than she did two years ago: ‘I don’t believe it’s just a conduit for speech anymore – we have Twitter crimes happening. It’s taken on a life and an independence of its own that takes away some of its innocence. It needs to clean up its act.’
The ease with which people can make an opinion known to hundreds, if not thousands, of people, argues Harris, has resulted in a new offence: ‘The instantaneous nature, and the public humiliation that [people] can achieve with the flick of a button blurs the line between straightforward abuse and comment.’
The fundamental tension in media law – that of upholding the right to free speech while protecting the right to privacy – is particularly applicable to users of Twitter, with many arguing that if you sign up, then you shouldn’t be surprised if you become embroiled in very public disputes. Other media lawyers we speak to in the Index think you simply have to be thick skinned if you regularly engage in debates or share personal information on Twitter, but Harris reiterates the importance of privacy.
‘One of the arguments I find most unconvincing’, she says, ‘is the assumption that anyone who uses Twitter has somehow voluntarily waived their right to any sort of private life. You should be able to promote your career, or a charity, or comment on the news, without that meaning you’ve invited a journalist into your bedroom.’