Saturday, 20 October 2012

Media Law, Lecture 1, Year Three - Introduction and Fatal Errors

It's been a long time since I typed up law notes onto Blogger. As ever, it's vitally important to keep up to date with ever-changing laws and case examples as we continue to produce video content and written content for Winchester News Online.

Our first law lecture served as a refresher session and covered topics including the fatal errors system and the code of conduct.

Picture: Courtesy of
The thought of causing a fatal error should leave any training journalist shaking in fear. A fatal error can lead to severe legal complications, but can be avoided if you're confident with a number of key legal topics.

To begin the lecture, we studied the fatal error system put forward by the University of Winchester. This consists of six points:

1) Malice

Malice is simply defined as a statement that is untrue, which has been said to intentionally cause harm and/or damage the reputation of a person or group. Reporting on a story and deliberately leaving out particular pieces of information could also be seen as malice.

2) Dishonest presentation of sources / dishonesty generally

Dishonest presentation of sources means that an individual has attempted to promote a particular product or service. Using a personal friend or member of family as an interviewee would also come under this category.  Carrying out such an act would ultimately result in a fake / false interview piece and would therefore be classed as a fatal error.

3) Causing Disrepute / Disruption

4) Reckless inaccuracy in basic expression

5) Legal problems (without justification)

6) Regulatory problems (without justification)

Other variations of the code of conduct also exist. In an earlier post on this blog, I ran through these other examples. That post, discussing subjects including OFCOM and the code of the NUJ, can be found below:

Now we have covered the code of conduct, it's worth looking further into the areas of defamation, contempt and privacy.


A defamatory statement or claim is either false or a malicious representation of a person, their words or their actions.

If a group is defamed, then all members of that particular group can potentially sue successfully, even though it may be that the publisher intended to only refer to one of them. An example of a famous case regarding defamatory claims is that involving Elton John in 2005. The singer sued the Sun for £1m and more information on that case can be found here:

For a statement to be defamatory, it must be published. In other words, the statement must be publicly available for it to be defamatory. This could be in the form of a newspaper story or a radio piece, for example. Those wishing to dispute a defamatory statement upon them (In other words, the claimant) must prove that the statement has been published. There is no defamation if the words complained of are addressed only to the person who they are made (with the exception of criminal libel)

For a statement to be considered defamatory, it must agree with the following points:

1) The statement exposes the subject to hatred, ridicule or contempt
2) The statement causes the subject to be shunned or avoided
3) The statement discredits the subject in their trade, profession or business
4) The statements lowers the subject in the eyes of right thinking members of society

It's worth noting that the defenses for defamation are: justification, fair comment and privilege.

In one of my earlier blog posts, I outlined the reasons why an organisation may be reluctant to fight a defamation action. Potential reasons include the following:

* Uncertainty of how a jury will interpret meanings: The statement that seems to one person quite innocuous may be defamatory to another
* Difficulty in proving the truth. Witnesses may be reluctant to give evidence, for example
* Huge damages could be awarded if trial lost
* Huge costs
* May prove beneficial to instead settle the matter outside of court


Breaking contempt of court is extremely dangerous, because it has the power to damage ongoing court cases. To ensure such an incident does not take place, a journalist must ensure that if they are covering a court case, they must make a fair an accurate report.


The subject of privacy is closely related to Articles 8 and 10 of the human rights act.

Article 8, Right to privacy:

"Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence."

"There shall be no interference by a public authority with the exercise of this right except such as is in accordance with the law and is necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security, public safety or the economic well-being of the country, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."

Article 10, Freedom of expression:

"Everyone has the right of freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without inference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises."

"The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."


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