A journalist must respect the law if they wish to avoid costly action, jail time, and a sullied reputation. There are several aspects to consider here and I’ve done my best to summarise them.
- Defamation– A journalist must never publish false and potentially damaging claims about an individual. This is known as defamation. Spoken defamation is known as slander and is usually dealt with more leniently in British courts. Defamation which has been recorded onto a viewable medium, such as print, broadcast, and even social media, is called libel and is treated more seriously. This because the reach of published material is far greater and therefore more damaging than slander, which has a limited audience and may only last for an instant, while published material is preserved for generations.
- Plagiarism– When a journalist takes credit for someone else’s work, this is plagiarism, or to put it more concisely, theft. Victims can sue plagiarists for large sums of money, but the greatest cost of plagiarism is the crippling damage it inflicts on an offending writer’s reputation. Many respectable organisations will refuse to hire plagiarists, making it extremely difficult for those found guilty of the malpractice to find gainful employment in the journalistic profession.
- Court Reporting– When a journalist is observing or reporting on a preliminary court hearing, there will be specific restrictions in place on the information the journalist can publicise. This is to prevent the publication of sensitive information from prejudicing a fair trial by biasing the jurors before the actual trial can get underway.
The BBC Academy, an invaluable learning resource for aspiring journos, has published a list of the details which can be publicised during these preliminary hearings. These are the following:
- The name of the court
- The judges dealing with the case
- A summary of the charges
- The names, addresses, ages and occupations of the defendants and witnesses
- The lawyers involved and arrangements as to bail.
In addition, there are important regulations to remember when the case you are reporting on a youth court, which handles criminal cases perpetrated by children aged under 18. The BBC Academy teaches that courts in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland expressively prohibit any identification of a child. They achieve this by automatically restricting the publication of the following:
- Their name
- Their address
- Their school
- A photograph or other pictures
The other courts don’t automatically restrict the identity of a defendant, but you will need to honour their request if they decide to withhold the identity of the defendant from the public.
It’s also advisable that a journalist doesn’t provoke the contempt of the court by interviewing witnesses before they make their statements to the court, or by pressuring them to give an interview after the trial.
The BBC Academy’s fall guide to journalistic law can be found here-http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/law
What is IPSO?
The Independent Press Standards Organisation, aka IPSO, is the new regulator of newspapers and magazines in the UK. They provide a list of guidelines called the Editor’s Code to ensure that journalists do not breach privacy laws and according to their official website, “operate a new complaints procedure that is designed to achieve speedy and fair resolution of your complaints”. IPSO closely considers every compliant that is submitted and has the legal authority to “impose new sanctions, including the ability to determine the nature, extent and placement of corrections” on publications they believe have violated the Editor’s code.
The Editor’s Code is a list of regulations designed to help editors to self-regulate. ISPSO write on the Editor’s Code page on their official website that the code “balances both the rights of the individual and the public’s right to know.” If it is to accomplish this, IPSO recommend that it is “interpreted neither so narrowly as to compromise its commitment to respect the rights of the individual, nor so broadly that it infringes the fundamental right to freedom of expression – such as to inform, to be partisan, to challenge, shock, be satirical and to entertain – or prevents publication in the public interest”. In short, the editor needs to refer to the code on an article by article basis.
I’ve included and explained two recent rulings IPSO have made in response to a complaint. The first is designated 00191-16 Portes v express.co.uk and recounts how one Jonathan Portes claimed a report by express.co.uk violated the first clause (Accuracy) of the Editor’s code. The report, which was published online on the 23rd of December 2015, ran with a headline claiming that the UK had stopped nearly 100,000 immigrants at the border in 2015. The article was correct to say that 30, 629 people had been stopped from April to July, but based the yearly figure of 92,000 not on concrete statistics, but projections from the home office. The IPSO committee ruled that the article was “significantly misleading information: at the time of publication, 92,000 migrants had not been stopped at the UK border in 2015” and alerted The Express to the inaccuracy. The newspaper accepted their mistake and promptly published a correction which satisfied the committee to take no further action.
In this case, the ruling was upheld. This was not so with 12114-15 Tooze v The Sun case, when a man named Steve Tooze complained to IPSO that The Sun on Sunday had breached the accuracy clause of the Editor’s Code with an article “headlined “Coke in loo at Jez bash”, published in print on 21 December 2015”. It was also published online the same day with the considerably more lurid headline “Hard left Labour group in drug shame as Sun investigation finds coke in loos at Corbyn bash”. The article seemed to allege that the Class A drug cocaine was being taken by members of The Momentum Group at a Christmas party. Swabs set by a journalist at the party had detected trace elements of cocaine on the cisterns of the club’s toilets. IPSO record’s state that Tooze “pointed out that the venue was a busy urban pub and that the traces of cocaine found could well have been present from other events”. He also claimed that the party was open to paying non-Momentum members who may have used the substances the journalist had discovered. When asked to defend their practices, The Sun reportedly “denied that the online headline, sub-headline on the print version and the article itself implied that Momentum were responsible for the drugs found at the venue”. The newspaper claimed that the article didn’t directly accuse Momentum member of substance abuse and maintained that a reader was able to make their own conclusions on the evidence. They also argued against Tooze’s arguments by pointing to the testimony of the club owner, who said to was unlikely that the traces of cocaine didn’t belong to one of the attendees as the toilets had been scrupulously cleaned.
IPSO decided there was a “reasonable basis on which to infer that drugs had been used by an attendee”. The committee resolved that The Sun had not breached the accuracy clause of The Editor’s Code. You can still find the article responsible for the complaint at this address http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/6816342/Hard-Left-Labour-group-in-drug-shame-as-Sun-investigation-finds-coke-in-loos-at-Corbyn-bash.html