An overview of the main aspects of Media Law that impact on journalists

Now, more than ever, journalists are expected to meet appropriate ethical and regulatory standards – whether they are those put forward by the government, public broadcasters such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), or by independent regulators and competition authorities such as Ofcom.

These standards are also expected of a blog, as all publications are potentially liable to legal action – especially when there is the presence of the following factors:

  • defamation (the false or unjustified injury of the reputation of another, as by slander or libel);
  • causing disrepute/disruption (either deliberately or by recklessness) to discredit the reputation of others;
  • dishonesty and misrepresentation of sources; and/or
  • malice.

Use of any of the above can result not only in fines but also, in more serious cases, imprisonment. However, malice is considered the one unforgivable sin – as what is written or broadcast has been done so with the primary intention of causing harm to the reputation of others by deliberately misleading the reader for personal gain. By simply withdrawing personal interest, it is less likely to be accused or suspected of having malicious involvement.

Likewise, plagiarism and copyright infringement are serious offences to consider in the process of publishing either articles or blogs. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 protects the rights of authors/creators of literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work – including publications by journalists. This lasts for the creator’s lifetime and then for another 70 years from the end of the calendar year in which he/she dies. In addition, there are civil laws in relation to falsely ‘passing off’ others’ work as your own. Further issues such as reckless inaccuracy in basic expression do not have the same consequences as legal or regulatory problems but equally devalue a publication.

However, it is not all doom and gloom! There are three main libel defences that can be used to defend a publication including privilege, justification and honest comment. Privilege exists under common law and statute and allows complete freedom of speech without any risk of proceedings for defamation – even if the statements are defamatory or untrue. Justification requires that the public material complained of can be proved in court to be substantially true. The main requirement of an honest comment defence is that it must be based on provably true facts / privileged material. Also, thanks to The Freedom of Information Act 2000 which came into effect in 2005, journalists, among many others have a public right of access to information held by public authorities as long as they are prepared to argue that that the public interest justifies disclosure of information.

Court reporting

Online social networking services such as ‘Twitter’, launched in 2006, have raised questions in relation to the use of ‘live, text-based based communications’ in places such as public galleries where journalists do not require permission to ‘tweet’, email or text reports from the courts themselves. Despite having this luxury, it is still important to have a basic ability of shorthand to take down detailed notes as the use of tape recorders and/or videos are prohibited.

Examples of contempt of court:

According to The Contempt of Court Act 1981, it is a contempt of the court to obtain, solicit or disclose any detail of:

  • statements made;
  • opinions expressed;
  • arguments advanced; or
  • votes cast

 by members of a jury during its deliberations. The penalty for disclosing details on any of the above is a jail term of up to two years and/or an unlimited fine.

Mark Hanna and Mike Dodd’s McNae’s essential law for journalism helps uncover the reasoning behind the many and growing restrictions on what can be published despite the fact that the UK has a ‘free press’.

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About brackenstockley

Contributor to the JusticeGap and WINOL. Currently studying journalism at the University of Winchester (Year Three).
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