Here in Melbourne we’ve been absolutely devastated by the disappearance of Jill Meagher. Ms Meagher was a 29-year-old Irishwoman who worked at the ABC. Last Friday, she went missing after going to drinks with colleagues in Sydney Road, Brunswick. A colleague offered to walk her home; but she lived only 800m away and declined the offer. There was a massive social media campaign to find her after her husband reported her missing. Horribly, her body was found early this morning in a shallow grave. A Coburg man has been arrested and charged with her rape and murder. The crucial information that cracked the case was obtained from CCTV footage from a bridal store which showed Ms Meagher interacting with a man wearing a blue hoodie top. That final image of Ms Meagher walking off holding her phone is haunting. You just want to shout, No! Don’t go!
Somehow this case has really upset me. If there’s one thing I have never understood, it is the kind of crime which has been alleged to have taken place here: i.e. violent sex crime. I can understand how one might be pushed to commit murder or theft in an extreme situation — but this kind of crime is totally baffling and horrific. I just do not understand it at all. It is times like this that I wish I believed in a God or Gods. Some kind of prayer seems appropriate in any case.
What was even more distressing was the tendency seen in some comments immediately after Ms Meagher’s disappearance to somehow blame the woman – she shouldn’t have worn a short dress, she shouldn’t have been alone, she shouldn’t have been at a bar. I have a thought-experiment for people who might be tempted to think this. Let’s say you know a young man who takes a shortcut through a park late at night after having a couple of drinks with a few friends and is raped by a male assailant. Would you think to say the victim shouldn’t have worn a tight t-shirt, or that he shouldn’t have had a drink with some mates before he cut through the park? I very much doubt that you would. So I ask you: why is there one rule for men and another for women in this? The responsibility for this crime lies with the assailant, not with the victim. It is not up to women to control male sexual impulses. The responsibility lies with the assailant, and it is not the woman’s fault. Sure, one should still be careful, but a woman should be able to walk down the street without being at risk of being abducted, raped and murdered.
Although social media has been an immensely powerful tool in assisting the police with their inquiries, there is now a risk associated with social media, namely that the accused may not get a fair trial and consequently, it may be difficult to prosecute him. You can see that I have included a picture of the Victoria Police Facebook update in this post.
The important thing is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. I know it’s hard not to jump to conclusions. When Ms Meagher’s disappearance was first reported, my immediate instinct was to suspect Ms Meagher’s poor husband on the basis of my knowledge from legal practice that most murders of women are committed by men who are close to them. (Yes, I feel very guilty now). This is precisely why the presumption of innocence is important: so that we don’t jump to conclusions and convict people on instinct. We go through due process and we convict people on the evidence, coolly and calmly. We don’t just bash them up because we suspect they did it, because what if we get it wrong?
A Facebook page suggesting the accused in this case should be hanged already has 33,881 “likes” (when I checked at 5:45pm today) as well as a photo which is allegedly of the accused, and there are numerous other such hate pages springing up (I counted six or so). Linked are some screenshots of comments made by individuals seeking revenge on the accused (warning: NSFW and requires a strong stomach). We don’t live in an age of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth any more. Public hangings aren’t a spectacle these days (cf Tyburn Gallows) and I am glad of that. I can understand that people feel angry, and if Jill were my sister or my friend, I’m sure there would be a part of me which would want to exact bloody revenge. But the thing which makes us civilised is that we don’t take the law into our own hands. Indeed, anyone who injured the accused would be committing a crime, because the law applies to all, even criminals (that’s equality before the law, by the way). Meanwhile some poor fellow in Coburg who shares the same first initial and surname as the alleged perpetrator is receiving death threats and constant prank calls. This is why we don’t take the law into our own hands. When you act with emotion and on instinct, you often get it wrong and may commit great injustice.
This article from The Age explains why it is important to exercise restraint in this matter (appealing to people’s pragmatism as much as anything else):
University of Canberra journalism academic Julie Posetti said users needed to be aware of potential implications of “trial by social media” by posting about the accused.
“In this particular case, it would be awful to think about the potential consequences including an incapacity to prosecute somebody because of trial by social media, for example,” said Ms Posetti, who is writing a PhD on Twitter’s role in journalism.
“We all are very familiar with the term trial by media and it’s a real problem, but we also now need to be aware of the potential implications of trial by social media.
“Practically, [and speaking] generically, as soon as a person is arrested, we need to stop talking about what we think we know about that individual because there is a risk that his or her defence lawyers could argue that there’s no possibility for a fair trial in this country for the person who’s accused, because so much information has been published.
“If we go back to this case, identification will be crucial, so if this person’s picture is plastered everywhere it becomes a problem which is why we see the traditional media, particularly in Victoria, blotting his face so he’s not recognisable.”
In a statement earlier today, Ms Meagher’s uncle, Michael McKeon, acknowledged the role social media had played in the search for his niece.
“We believe that it has helped us in the search, but it’s not the outcome that we had hoped and prayed for. We thank the people around the world who have helped support us,” he said.
Ms Boschma said the CCTV footage of Ms Meagher had been viewed millions of times on social media. She said this was a good example of “action-oriented” information sharing.
“Victoria Police are really to be commended for releasing that footage, I think; they took a calculated risk, but it absolutely broke open the case and the rate of sharing, I think, helped spread action-oriented information and really, that’s what people want at times like this,” she said.
“The second reason why social media is so important in instances like this is a sense of connection and community, and people want to feel connected to others who feel the same as them.
“Where things start to become incredible, I guess, is that Jill’s name had appeared in more than 35 million Twitter feeds in the early stages of this case and a lot of the sharing came from Australia and Ireland.
“The community has extended across the globe via social media, which I think is really powerful and hopefully it’s provided some comfort for people.”
But Ms Boschma warned that the Facebook page created to help find Ms Meagher would now have to be carefully moderated.
“The message about being careful about what’s being shared doesn’t seem to be getting through,” she said.
“They [the page moderators] need to be really careful about what’s put up and they need to start moderating. This challenge of moderating Facebook pages is something that goes on every day and it’s now time for them to do that, to ensure criminal proceedings go the way they should go.”
Ms Posetti said this case “perfectly highlights the enormous power and potential of social media – and also the great risks”.
She said it was possible that the online community encouraged to help find Ms Meagher could be “the undoing potentially of a prosecution, if the community now takes it upon itself to do things like reconstruct the alleged perpetrator’s history”.
“While everybody now has the capacity to contribute to public conversation about issues including this very tragic story, and that might be really valuable and useful information … unless you are a lawyer or a person who has a professional responsibility for publication, you’re unlikely to be aware of the very serious risks that exist, particularly in a criminal case and particularly with regards to the threat to a trial.”
Ms Posetti called for a community education program to be rolled out among the community for greater media literacy.
She also expressed concern at the low levels of understanding among some users that the law applied to them on the internet.
“There is a belief that is alarmingly wide-spread that you can say what you want on the internet without any consequences, and while I’m an advocate for freedom of expression, I know that’s absolutely not the case and there are practical reasons why that’s not the case,” Ms Posetti said.
“We can have arguments about the need for defamation laws, for example, but we’re talking about something much more serious. We’re talking about a criminal prosecution involving a horrendous crime and we have to be aware that the law as it stands does apply to all forms of publication, whether that’s a blog or a Twitter feed or a Facebook page, particularly with regard to legal and court reporting.
“The law does not necessarily equate with justice. The law and our collective sense of justice are not necessarily the same thing so if what we want to do is ensure justice is done, we have to figure out how to play within the law on this.”
So yes, it’s a sad day. My sincerest condolences to Ms Meagher’s husband, family, friends and colleagues. What an awful, awful thing. But we must still ensure that people who are alleged to commit crimes are convicted fairly and on the evidence. Everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence for the very good reason that we want to make sure we have the right person before we punish them. And I’m sure the last thing that Ms Meagher’s husband, family, friends and colleagues would want is for the trial of the accused to be derailed on the basis of the actions of vengeful idiots.