How to tweet without ending up in prison

An ill-judged tweet can land you in a whole lot of legal bother, as Peaches Geldof and Sally Bercow know only too well. So the attorney general's new guidelines are essential reading

It doesn't seem real to think that you could take your phone out of your pocket right now, type a few words on it, and put yourself irrevocably on the path to prison. In the UK, however, those are the risks that all journalists live with. And as the attorney general points out today, whenever you publish something on the internet, you are a journalist as well. (But without a legal department or a scuzzy reputation.)

From now on, the attorney general's office will issue its own public advisory notices, which previously had been sent only to mainstream news outlets whenever a specific case was causing concern. And it warns that sentences may get stiffer, as people can't claim ignorance in mitigation. If you like to talk about what's happening in the world online, follow @AGO_UK, and the rules below.

Don't name and shame

When the footballer Ched Evans was convicted of rape last year, his victim, a 19-year-old woman, was named more than 6,000 times on Twitter by people who thought he was innocent. Since then, nine people have been convicted and fined. Naming them, of course, is perfectly legal.

Don't assume it's already out there

Peaches Geldof says she found the names of the women who allowed their children to be abused by Ian Watkins "on several different websites", and believed they'd already been released by the courts. Enraged that the women's identity was being protected, as she saw it, she named them herself. The trouble was that HM Courts and Tribunals Service had published the names by mistake. Nor was it the women who were being protected anyway. It was their children, who Geldof's followers might now have been able to identify. Geldof herself may yet face a criminal prosecution, so even this account of the fiasco needs to be worded carefully.

Don't retweet it if you wouldn't tweet it

Late last year, thousands of people falsely identified Lord McAlpine as a paedophile by naming him as the anonymous subject of an inaccurate Newsnight film. Many of those false identifications were retweets of other people's original tweets, yet they were equally libellous. Holly Price, one of the people convicted of naming Ched Evans's victim, also did so through a retweet. She is currently suspended from her job for a year.

Don't try to be clever

In the end McAlpine decided to take legal action against a group of only 20 "high-profile" tweeters, defined as those with 500 followers of more. (Although the rules are the same, even with zero followers.) A feature of some of the offending tweets was that their senders clearly thought they were getting round the rules. "I looked up Lord McAlpine on t'internet. It says the strangest things," wrote George Monbiot. Sally Bercow said: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*" Monbiot has since agreed to do £25,000 of charity work, while Bercow has paid out £15,000.

Don't forget the "allegedly"

It may seem like a joke sometimes, but that word makes all the difference. If someone is on trial for a crime, that means the prosecution say they did it, but it absolutely does not mean they did. Saying they "allegedly" committed the "alleged" offence (there may not have been any offence) reminds everyone how little you know. Best to say nothing, especially if they've only been arrested and not charged. Think of Chris Jefferies, the innocent man whose life was almost ruined by a witch-hunt after the death of Joanna Yeates three years ago, and put the pitchfork down.

Contributor

Leo Benedictus

The GuardianTramp

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