Two users of online social media who breached an injunction banning the revelation of the new identities of James Bulger’s killers received suspended jail sentences yesterday.
The nine-month terms, which were suspended for 15 months, followed action by Attorney General Dominic Grieve against Neil Harkins, of Bridlington, and Dean Liddle, of Sunderland.
The pair put photos on Twitter and Facebook in February, two days after the 20th anniversary of the toddler’s murder, which purported to depict Jon Venables and Robert Thompson as adults.
Sir John Thomas, president of the Queen’s Bench Division, and Mr Justice Tugendhat said Liddle and Harkins knew that what they were doing was wrong and it was no excuse that others were doing it.
The pair admitted breaching a January 2001 injunction, binding on the whole world, imposed before Venables and Thompson were released from detention, which bans the publication of any information purporting to identify their physical appearance, whereabouts, movements or new identities.
Mr Grieve said the injunction had to be enforced to mitigate the “very real risk of serious physical harm or death” to anyone who might be identified, whether correctly or incorrectly, as being either of the killers.
The Attorney General said after the ruling: “An internet posting takes seconds but can have major consequences.
“These people were fully aware that there is an injunction in place which prevents publication of any images or information claiming to identify anyone as Jon Venables or Robert Thompson, yet they carried on.”
He added: “It has been in place for many years and applies to both media organisations and individuals.
“It is irrelevant whether the postings in this case were of who they claimed to be.
“The order is meant not only to protect Venables and Thompson but also those members of the public who have been incorrectly identified as being either of them.”
Harkins said “no comment” as he left the Royal Courts of Justice.
Liddle said: “I am just going to go home and see my son.”
Sir John said Harkins, a 35-year-old househusband, and Liddle, 28, a graphic designer, had both removed the offending pictures very quickly and apologised.
He added that a fine would be wholly inappropriate to the gravity of what was a serious contempt and an unprecedented case.
He said it was plain that both knew of the prohibition on publication, although they may not have known the full extent of the consequences of what they were doing.
The penalty had to make clear the determination of the court to protect the potentially numerous people at risk and the importance of upholding the rule of law, he added.
“Vigilantism has no place in a civilised country and it is for the purpose of deterring such conduct that we must have particular regard.
“The social media can reach many people as this case shows, and therefore the conduct of anyone publishing such information, whether it be on social media or elsewhere on the internet, has that very serious consequence.”
Sir John said the court would consider a custodial sentence, not only to punish but also to deter others, but would take the exceptional course of suspending it in this case.
And he warned that there was very little prospect of an offender avoiding a very substantial and immediate custodial sentence if there was any future similar publication.
The judges had heard that Harkins had 141 friends on Facebook and his post had been shared 20,000 times. The father-of-three accepted that he had been extremely foolish and had shown genuine remorse.
Liddle, who had 915 followers on Twitter, undertook various charitable activities, the court was told, and an immediate custodial sentence would have major consequences for his profoundly deaf son.