Belfast rape trial prompts concerns over social media commentary

The PSNI says it is investigating those who named the complainant online

Belfast rape trial prompts concerns over social media commentary

Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson (centre) with his solicitor Joe McVeigh (centre left) outside Belfast Crown Court, 28-03-2018. Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Representatives on both sides of the Belfast rape trial have slammed the role played by social media as the events of the trial unfolded over the past nine weeks.

Ireland and Ulster international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were this afternoon acquitted of raping the same woman in June 2016.

Mr Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault.

Their friend Blane McIlory was acquitted of one count of exposure while another friend Rory Harrison was acquitted of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

The verdict has led to an outpouring of emotion and commentary online with the hashtag #IBelieveHer trending despite the men's acquittal on all counts.

Throughout the trial, the judge was critical of commentary on social media and reminded the jury not to pay attention to it.

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre CEO, Noeline Blackwell, 05-10-2017. Image: Sam Boal/RollingNews

On Moncrieff this afternoon, the chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Noeline Blackwell said some of the reaction was scandalous and unhelpful:

"Undoubtedly social media took the opportunity of a trial about intimate, private, very personal matters and managed to vilify and excoriate all concerned in it," she said.

"It is a new element."

Anonymity

Speaking after the verdict PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman paid tribute to the young woman at the centre of the trial " who had the resolve and confidence to come forward and put her faith in police and the criminal justice process."

The woman is said to be upset at the verdict - but has no regrets in taking the case.

Superintendent Hilman noted that the complainant had been named on social media as the trial was ongoing - breaching her legal right to anonymity.

She warned that "any breach of this entitlement is and will be investigated."

"Courage and determination"

Marianne O'Kane, head of the Public Prosecution Service's (PPS) serious crime unit addresses the media in Belfast, 28-03-2018. Image: Aine Fox/PA Wire/PA Images

Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service also took the time to "recognise the courage and determination" shown by the woman and her family throughout the trial.

Marianne O'Kane, head of the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service's Serious Crime Unit told a news conference that it was in the public interest to prosecute the four men.

"There has been extensive media coverage of this case, sometimes at a level which has been unprecedented in recent times," she said.

"I hope that this has helped the public to better understand the criminal justice system and the trial process.

"I also hope that there will be a continuing conversation about societal attitudes in relation to sexual offences."

"Vile commentary"

Ireland and Ulster rugby player Paddy Jackson with his solicitor Joe McVeigh outside Belfast Crown Court, 22-03-2018. Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Speaking outside the trial, Paddy Jackson's solicitor welcomed what he described as a "common sense verdict of not guilty to all counts."

He warned that despite the verdict, "vile commentary expressed on social media, going well beyond fair comment, have polluted the sphere of public discourse and raise real concerns about the integrity of the trial process."

“To that end we want to thank the learned trial judge for her management of this trial in the face of an onslaught of toxic content particularly on Twitter," he said.

"Several days of this trial were lost due to problems thrown up by the intrusive infection of the process by social media.

“All the lawyers have been distracted by having to man the barriers against a flood of misinformed, misconceived and malicious content on the internet - particularly during the vital last phase of this trial and, worryingly , even at the hands of public servants who should know better.

"There is no reason to believe that this problem will not worsen."

He called on the Northern Irish authorities to begin looking at "more robust mechanisms that can strike an effective balance between everyone’s rights but that properly secure the integrity of our criminal justice system."