Parliament can't stop the tweets

A rejection on a Twitter ban in Australian Parliament, and the backdown in New South Wales over a proposed ban on court tweets shows that governments are at least attempting to come to grips with the inevitability of social media.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Earlier in the week, Liberal MP and manager of opposition business in the House of Representatives, Christopher Pyne sought to have a tweet from Labor MP Steve Gibbons withdrawn because he tweeted it while in parliament.

The tweet in question came on Tuesday, after there were interjections from the public gallery during Question Time referring to Prime Minister Julia Gillard as "Juliar" and "moll".

Gibbons tweeted that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott "contracted out his nasty side" to the interjectors.

Pyne said that the tweet was "extremely unpleasant and untrue", and asked for it to be withdrawn. Speaker Anna Burke said at the time that she would consider stopping MPs tweeting during Question Time.

"Obviously, during question time, I am not seeing what Twitter is saying. I am not on it for my own sanity, and I would highly recommend everybody else getting off it for that very reason. I will investigate the matter," she said.

On Wednesday, however, Burke ruled that such a ban would mean banning all electronic devices in the House.

"To prevent tweeting would necessitate a blanket restriction on all electronic and communication devices in the chamber. Although this may appeal to some members, I imagine it would be strongly resisted by others," she said.

"I do acknowledge that public communications emanating from the chamber are a recent phenomena, which could impact on deliberations. This is something the House has only just started to grasp."

Burke said that the comments made by MPs on social media, unlike comments made in the House, are not covered by parliamentary privilege, so they can be sued for those comments.

Burke's decision to allow Twitter access in Parliament comes just under a month after the New South Wales Attorney-General Greg Smith backed down from a proposal to ban the use of all electronic devices in New South Wales courts.

The government is still moving ahead with the legislation, but lawyers and journalists will be exempt from the restrictions, Smith said at the time.

It's an almost embracing of the inevitable. Tweeting from court first rose to prominence in Australia during the start of the court battle between iiNet and the Australia Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT). It has become much more commonplace since then with Optus TV Now, and Apple v. Samsung. The recent Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) hearings with former Labor power broker Eddie Obeid have also been fairly widely tweeted.

In parliament, it's not just a matter of tweeting. Although several MPs from all sides of politics tweet in parliament, many MPs use laptops and iPads to replace printouts of the speeches they read. Not to mention all the press gallery journalists who live-tweet Question Time every time it is on.

Banning all electronic devices because of one or two out of order tweets would not only have been a backwards move, it would have been unworkable. Sanity has prevailed.

There is one problem with the New South Wales government's proposal, however. Where it falls over is that the exemption is only for "recognised journalists". The last few times I've been in court reporting on Apple and Samsung, and tweeting to my heart's content, I've not really been wearing the stereotypical "PRESS" hat to make my profession known. Sure, I have business cards that list my profession as a journalist, but "recognised journalist" is quite open to interpretation.

The legislation, as it stands, could potentially see a number of people who are doing a form of journalism, whether it is considered to be professional or not, prevented from using electronic devices in New South Wales courts simply because they don't meet the guidelines of working for a publication.

We can only hope that when the law comes into force, it is treated as a guide, rather than the strict rule for who can and cannot tweet.

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