Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Media Law: Courts: Reporting and structure

The court system in England is divided into two parts: civil and crown (or state court). Both have a pyramid hierarchy that tries defendents on the severity of their offences.

Criminal courts deal with cases of a defendent against the Crown. Crown courts only try defendents for indictable offences meaning they can go to prison for 5 years or more. Mainly cases like murder, rape etc.

The civil side of the law deals with minor offences such as disputes over who owns a tree that overhangs two gardens for example. The civil umbrella covers all disputes both personal and corporate. From magistrates to county court, they deal with summary offences like public drunkenness.

Each-way offences are cases that can be heard in either a Crown Court or a Magistrates Court.

Laws can come from a number of sources. Mainly common and statute law and of course acts of Parliament. However in recent years, EU law has had a profound effect on law in this country.


The main pitfalls for journalists when it comes to reporting the courts are contempt and prejudice.

Contempt of court occurs when something is published that breaches the rules of court reporting by potentially causing prejudice. In 2002, Leeds United footballers Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer were accused of assualting another individual but were eventually aquitted after a newspaper printed an article with a relative of the alleged victim. This could have prejudiced the jury and therefore the pair would not have had a fair trial.

Prejudice is the other side of this legal coin and occurs when an article jeopardises the right of an individual to a fair trial.

When it comes to reporting the courts there are strict guidelines to avoid being hit by the legal sledgehammer.

In the immediate aftermath of a crime there are no restrictions in place on reporting. Every detail can be printed.

As soon as police make an arrest the case becomes LEGALLY ACTIVE. This now puts restrictions on what you can and cannot report and any material that COULD potentially prejudice a jury must be removed or not reported.

As soon as Police lay charges and a trial becomes the next step then only UNCONTESTED FACTS may be reported.

When it comes to reporting the trial there are 7 key steps from which a journalist cannot stray.

You may report:

- The name, age, occupation and of the defendent.

- The names of the magistrates

- Names of solicitors/barristers

- Date and place of adjournment

- Whether legal aid was granted

- Whether bail was applied for ONLY - not whether it was granted or not and arrangments

- Charges faced

In Crown Courts a journalist may ONLY report when a jury is present.

There are measures to prevent minors from being identified in court. Section 49 affords anonymity to under-18s in youth courts and Section 39 affords them anonymity in adult courts. Journalists simply cannot report the names of minors in court.

Following on from this, journalists must be careful not to fall into the trap of jigsaw identification. If a minor's name is not reported then by reporting details like how old they are and what school they go to may allow people to piece together these bits of information and identify a minor.

Media Law: Codes and Practises

Codes of conduct are, quite literally the rules and regulations that journalists must abide by. The main regulatory bodies and their codes of conduct are the Press Complaints Commission (PCC), OFCOM and the BBC's own guidelines.

The PCC code is important because it ensures that the industry has a degree of self-regulation.
Despite it's advantages, the code is fairly toothless when it comes to clamping down on journalists. The same can be said of the BBC guidelines.

Ofcom is perhaps the most effective of all the regulating bodies and regularly dishes out fines to media corporations for breaches of the rules. It is the only body that has statutory power and can therefore impose fines and even remove licences. Under OFCOM guidelines it is imperative that a journalist be both impartial and accurate.

In recent years, the BBC has been the most high profile casualty of OFCOM strict rules. Among other things, the body slapped a heavy fine on the BBC for fabricating telephone calls on the popular children's television programme Blue Peter.

On a personal note, I was working at a local BBC radio station at the time all of this came to light and received the blanket e-mail to all staff. From that moment on we had to ensure that every competition was above board and as a broadcast assitant had to log every call and hand in my sheet at the end of my shift - utter madness!

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Media Law: Defamation, Libel and Privilege

If the journalism industry was mapped out like a World War One battlefield, with the journalists one one side and the story/news on the other and no-mans land containing a mass of legal snares. Mines marked "defamation" would probably be laid in large clumps ensuring that, should a journalist step on one it would quite simply be the end of him (or her, for those of you mindful of political correctness). Describing this experience was perhaps not as eloquently put as Captain Edmund Blackadder but nevertheless it serves as a reminder to all journalists how dangerous defamation is.

In simple terms, defamation occurs when someone produces a permanent (written or broadcasted) statment that affects an individual's reputation. Specifically if:

- it lowers them in the estimation of right thinking people

- causes them to be shunned and avoided

- if it affects them in the their trade profession or industry. Slander is the non-permanent sister of defamation.

- exposes them to hatred ridicule or contempt

When a libel writ is brought against a journalist for a defamatory statement then there are four defences.

Justification - I can prove that the statement (although defamatory) is true.

Fair and honest comment - The statement is comment based on fact and is an honest and fair opinion. Must also be in the public interest

Qualified Privilege - The statement is protected by qualified privilege

The Reynolds Defence - If defamatory material is in the public interest AND adheres to the Nicholls List. Must also be a product of RESPONSIBLE JOURNALISM

Libel laws in the UK are perhaps the worst in the world. Many celebrities bring a libel writ to UK courts because they know that they will win. A good example of this sort of action was when a famous boxer had defamatory statements written about him in a boxing magazine. Although not protected under US law, his lawyer proved that the magazine could be downloaded in the UK and therefore fell within UK court jurisdiction.

Journalists must also be aware of inference and innuendo. Television journalists must also be aware of 'wallpaper pictures' to ensure that no-one is postitively identified.


Privilege is something that is afforded to journalists that allows them to report without fear of legal reprimand providing they stick to an agreed reporting formula.

Qualified privilege is a cast-iron defence against defamation providing the material is:


Finally, it was interesting to hear a recent discussion that took place on Radio 5Live on the subject of super-injunctions. Victoria Derbyshire's show centred on a debate with Max Mosely about how super-injunctions should be lifted. One of the arguments from a caller was that a company who had take out a super-injunction in order to stop the world from finding out that they had dumped nuclear waste in Africa should not have been allowed to do so simply from a humanitarian point of view. Interesting to note that people are now wanting to apply common sense to super injunctions.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Time To Put Up And Shut Up

As yet more student protests over the tuition fee rises take place, is it now time to stop protesting and accept that the coalition government will not change its mind? Messrs Clegg and Cable have been reassuring students that this is the right way to go and it is hard not to agree with them.

Firstly, hats off to the Liberal Democrats who have proved how far one can go with an appealing election strategy. In fact their entire election manifesto seemed to read like a school council manifesto. It took me back to a time just over ten years ago when I started secondary school as a bright-eyed, enthusiastic young pupil. Presented with the opportunity to run for class president and thus secure election to the school council, I jumped at the chance. My aims were plain and simple. The opposition however, chose to make lavish promises like a longer breaktime among other things. Naturally they were elected, consigning my fledgeling political career to the history books.

Quite simply, this macrocosm can be applied to the bigger microcosm of modern Britain. Students were duped into thinking that by signing a pledge drawn up by the NUS, the Lib Dems were going to make students their niche voting strategy. Did anyone not stop and think for a second that this was not a legally binding document? Clearly not and this says to me that elections are now more about the electorate than the politicians themselves.

Perhaps students should look at this in a different way. If fewer people can afford to go to university then surely that drags up the value of a degree. Maybe universities themselves will now do away with so-called "mickey mouse" degrees and pump that reserve funding into other courses or improving research facilities. From a student's point of view, instead of protesting that it will be too expensive to go to a third-rate university to study, why not explore options abroad? Why not study in places like the USA or somewhere in Europe and gain a little life experience.

The Prime Minister's catchphrase when the cuts were announced was "we're all in this together" and some departments will have to sacrifice their funding. Higher education is vital to this country's continuing development but you could put your house on the general public taking to the streets in protest had the NHS been faced with such cuts. Unfortunately it is students who have to suffer this time around. Deal with it.

For an insider view on what went on in London at the first planned protest, here is WINOL news' stunning documentary:

(Picture: Jason Curtis)

Monday, 22 November 2010

Media Law: Freedom of Information

The Freedom of Information Act, passed by Tony Blair's government has been described as one of the greatest levellers between journalists and the government in recent times. The act covers 130,000 public bodies. Mainly government QUANGOS but any organisation that is funded by public money is bound by the act.

The impact it has had on both journalism and government in the UK has been massive. Tony Blair, in an interview with Andrew Marr described it as one of the aspects he regrets the most about his time in office. Directly or indirectly, it had some affect on the shift towards 'sofa government', a style very much associated with the latter years of the Blair government.

It's purpose was to allow the public a more transparent view of what went on government. Any person can request any information. As long as it is submitted in writing, the organisation must respond 'promptly' with the accepted time limit falling within 20 days. However, if there is an indication that the information may be deemed to be in the public interest, the authority may delay providing the requested information for a further 40 days, up to a total of 60 days.

There are, as one would expect, certain exceptions to the rule. Absolute exemption covers areas such as issues of national security such as state secrets or court records. Interestingly, The Church of England is also covered in this bracket. Qualified exemption concerns issues from ministerial communications to commercial confidentiality. However, unlike absolute exemption, qualified exemption is voided if the balance of public interest favours disclosure of the information.

Of the approximated 100,000 FOI requests submitted per year, only an estimated 12% are from journalists. There are some who believe that journalists make requests as members of the public and do not disclose their profession. Journalists or otherwise, the cost of these requests amounts to around £34 million. As a result, many journalists have cottoned on to the power the act gives them, with some carving out an entire career from picking stories from the information gleaned from a request. Many see the current epoch under the coalition government as a high water-mark for FOI requests.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Money Burns A Hole In My Pocket. Thank God It's Not The Euro..

The accouncement this week that the Irish government had rejected it was in talks with the EU over the possibility of a 'Greek-style' bailout has highlighted the problems of the current economic climate.

It is rather worrying that the EU President Herman Van Rompuy has admitted that if the Euro fails then so will the EU. When the major nations of Europe ditched their respective currencies just under a decade ago, it was hailed as a new dawn for the continent. However, I remember even back then hearing my father, uncle and great uncle discussing the merits of a unified currency and how, in their opinion Europe would lose its financial clout as a result. How right they have been proved.

Many financial commentators predicted the move away from Europe and east to the developing economic powerhouses of China, Korea and Japan and with the decline of the Euro it appears that the smaller economies like Ireland and Portugal will be hit hardest. The Irish insist they don't need a bailout: their plan to make £13bn of savings by 2014 appears to have smoothed over the cracks. There is a danger though that the European Central Bank could withdraw their financial support and leave Ireland in the financial wilderness.

Sitting pretty in the UK with the happy sound of pounds sterling jangling in my pocket, is this now the perfect example of why Britain should never join the Euro...

Media Law: Privacy and Confidentiality

As with most aspects of media law, privacy and confidentiality laws are derived from wide-ranging acts and laws. Specifically from Section Eight of the Human Rights Act. This specific section affords any individual the right to a private life.

The only way around privacy laws is with consent, of which there are two types: Explicit and Implicit. Explicit consent comes in the form of a consent form or some type of document that states in black and white that (for example) a photographer can take a picture. Implied consent is a on slightly shakier legal ground but still holds sway. If for example, the European Cup Final is held at Wembley and Prince William is the official who hands over the trophy to the winning team then consent is implicit. The Prince knows that he is at a public event and that there are thousands in the stadium and millions of other people watching world-wide so therefore he cannot claim an invasion of privacy.

Confidentiality is the other face of this double-headed legal coin and is there to protect two specific types of secret. The bigger of the two fish in the frying pan is the protection of state secrets. Under the Official Secrets Act 1911, it is considered an act of treason to give away state secrets to an enemy (Spooks is also educational as well as thoroughly entertaining!). The other side of confidentiality relates to Common Law secrets. This ranges from business or trade/commercial secrets right down to family secrets.

Often in the commercial world, employers put gagging clauses in employees' contracts in order to legally prevent them from giving away secrets or "whistleblowing". Whistleblowers were in fact the reason behind many employers gagging employees. One of the most famous cases is the Graham Pink case. His 'whistleblowing' alerted people to the poor state of an NHS hospital. From a journalists' point of view, whistleblowers are vital in helping to fulfill the role of the 'fourth estate' and many helplines and websites have been set up to help whistleblowers confidentially tell journalists of problems particularly in public organisations like the NHS.

Finally, confidence is breached if: it carries the necessary quality of confidence. An official state secret carries a higher quality of confidence compared to letting people know that your girlfriend is a closet Star Trek fan for example. However, under the right circumstances something as ridiculous as your girlfriend being a closet Star Trek fan could amount to breach of confidence IF she has not given you permission to broach the subject and if it has caused ACTUAL detriment. If she returns to work and is shunned and avoided she can claim that confidence has been breached. Unlike libel laws where an individual can prove that information COULD cause detriment, confidence is only breached when it has actually caused damage to a person's reputation.