Friday, 9 November 2012

Media Law, Lecture 7, Year Three - Privilege

Our seventh lecture in Media Law looked at privilege and its variations, along with how to identify what can be published at certain times.

Much of what was covered in this week's lecture links well with last week's topic on court reporting. For more on court reporting, you can access my previous media law post here: LINK.

Picture: Courtesy of
Privilege ultimately provides journalists with the protection to publish. Reporting from court brings privilege, as does the House of Commons / parliamentary proceedings.

There are two variations of privilege, which are qualified and absolute. Qualified privilege is relevant to police meetings, press conferences and council meetings. A public meeting in the public interest attracts a degree of privilege, which is good for us as journalists, because it gives us a dependable source of news from which to gather content.

Privilege is our friend. It allows us to write and broadcast material which may be defamatory or untrue, or even both at the same time. It gives us protection from being sued, too, which is why it's so valuable to the professionPrivilege even exists under common law and statute.

It's important to note that qualified privilege is only present if the report produced by the writer / journalist is:

1) Fair
2) Accurate
3) Without malice (More on malice in a previous blog post here: LINK)
4) A matter of public concern

This 4-point list links well with my post on the codes of conduct. The NUJ code of conduct, for example, shares similar values:

"Rule 2 discusses the importance of avoiding 'distortion', essentially highlighting the need to avoid misrepresenting stories and facts which would lead to confusion amongst the public. It states: " A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the Press and other media in relation to the collection of information and the expression of comment and criticism. He/she shall strive to eliminate distortion, news suppression and censorship."

Rule 3 says that any information released must be true and accurate, which basically repeats the idea behind the rule before it. It also says that it's important a Journalist does not pass off comment as fact. Clearly, this would go against the 'professional' and 'ethical' standards discussed at the start of the code. Rule 3 says: "A journalist shall strive to ensure that the information he/she disseminates is fair and accurate, avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact and falsification by distortion, selection or misrepresentation."

I've written more on codes of conduct here: LINK.

Produce an honest piece that is balanced and you're likely to be safe from any legal issues.

Continuing on from point 4, Information can be published if it's considered to be in the public interest, which is defined as:

1) Detecting or exposing crime or serious impropriety
2) Protecting public health and safety
3) Preventing the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation

For more on court reporting, you can access my previous media law post here: LINK.

Absolute privilege is different to qualified privilege in a number of ways. Having absolute privilege means what you're saying or producing can't truly be attacked or questioned.

Only a select few have absolute privilege, such as the Queen and judges in court. Lawyers and witnesses in court cases also fall under this category. When journalists sit in court, they have qualified privilege and therefore the right to record and report defamatory statements.

You can't be defamed for something that you've said in court. One can't be sued in this instance either.

As broadcasters, we should always be aware of the dangers of going out live. Consider the risks of broadcasting live before you do so and prepare to react if something is said that shouldn't be. A good example would involve a miscarriage of justice conference. An individual could allude to police corruption, for example, which would be highly defamatory. Part of the challenge of live television is anticipating what could potentially go wrong and taking steps to avoid it.

Our recent coverage of the 2012 Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner Debate on WINOL is somewhat relevant here. We hosted the event on Ustream with a 5 second delay. Admittedly, it wasn't much, but it gave us an option to pause or stop the broadcast if something potentially dangerous was said.

Press conferences (or 'pressers') are considered public meetings. Their meaning was further strengthened in 2000, when Lord Bingham was commenting on a trial involving the Times newspaper. 

Section 4 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888 states:

"A fair and accurate report published in any newspaper of the proceedings of a public meeting, or (except where neither the public nor any newspaper reporter is admitted) of any meeting of a vestry, town council, school board, . . . shall be privileged, unless it shall be proved that such report or publication was published or made maliciously.."

More information on the case can be found here: LINK.


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