Friday, 23 November 2012

Media Law, Lecture 9, Year Three - Investigative Journalism

Our ninth lecture in media law looked at the world of investigative journalism  During the session, we covered topics including source protection, the difference between criminal and civil law, and relevant case examples.

Above all else, a gonzo investigator is always looking for tension. A sociologically unusual situation makes for a fantastic story. Put yourself in jeopardy for impact.

Image: Courtesy of
The '4th Estate', which refers to the overwhelming power of the press, supports the idea that we as journalists have a duty to investigate corruption, which leads nicely to this case example:

Case Example: The Dreyfus Affair

The Dreyfus Affair is a story of social injustice, following the wrongful conviction of French army captain, Alfred Dreyfus.

After secret documents were found in a waste paper bin at a German embassy, it became obvious that the French had a spy at the facility. The documents that were discovered discussed the future plans of the French military. Somebody in the French army was taking documents and handing this information to the Germans.

The French army framed Dreyfus, claiming it was him that was passing around the sensitive information. There were many reasons why Dreyfus was chosen to take the blame, but the most obvious was due to an overwhelming sense of anti-Semitism from the army. The fact Dreyfus was a particularly clever individual also made him seem suspect. After being pronounced guilty of treason, Dreyfus was sent to 'Devil's Island' in 1894, which remained part of the French penal colony until 1952.
A writer and novelist named Emile Zola (Born 1840) was present at Dreyfus' trial, and was disgusted and horrified by the way the French captain had been framed. This was ultimately his reasoning behind writing the famous 'J'accuse' article - to expose the Government for their actions. 

J'accuse was published in 1898, on the front page of 'L'aurore', a Paris daily paper. It was a massively controversial article, because it exposed the government for falsely accusing Dreyfus and knowing that they were doing so. 

My full seminar summary on the Dreyfus Affair can be found by clicking the following link:


Naturally, investigative journalism is often controversial, because it exposes powerful groups and leaders over issues that up to a point have remained private / secret. 

For a journalist, reliable sources and contacts are vital. Building a good relationship with a reliable contact can provide information on a regular basis that perhaps couldn't be obtained any other way. On WINOL, myself and the rest of the team know of the importance of contacts first hand. Our local political contacts in particular have proved vital to the bulletin on multiple occasions.

One way of gathering information to help bulk out a VT is by speaking to somebody 'off the record'. This serves as a promise that what is discussed will remain private. No matter what, you won't say a word. Once you've built a trust with a contact though, you can convince them to give information on the record, which can be shared.

Qualified privilege was also covered in the lecture, and I've discussed that previously here:

On the subject of privilege, we discussed the case of Toogood v Spyring, upon which qualified privilege in common law is defined. 

Case Example: Toogood v Spyring

Toogood employed a butler and believed the butler was stealing spoons from his house during working hours. The butler was sacked by Toogood, but from this a legal issue arose. In the reference letter that accompanied the sacking, Toogood had stated that the butler was a thief, which was clearly defamatory. Toogood had no defence for this as there was no evidence the butler had stolen anything, however the judge threw out the butler's case.

On 'common convenience of society' - If there's no malice present at all, but it's good for society to know the information, that outweighs the rights of the butler.

During the case, the judge said: "The law considers such publication as malicious, unless it is fairly made by a person in the discharge of some public or private duty, whether legal or moral, or in conduct of his own affairs, in matters where his interest is concerned. In such cases the occasion prevents the inference of malice, which draws from unauthorised communications, and affords a qualified defence depending on the absence of actual malice. If fairly warranted by any reasonable occasion or exigency, and honestly made, such communications are protected for the common convenience and welfare of society; and the law has not restricted the right to make them within any narrow limits."


We then revised the standard of proof in both civil and criminal cases. In a criminal case, the standard of proof must be 'beyond reasonable doubt'. Prosecution must be absolutely sure an individual committed a crime. The consequences of loosing a criminal case is severe punishment e.g. heavy fines, imprisonment. As the outcome is so severe, it's important all doubt surrounding the case is absent. Civil cases, on the other hand, are resolved on a balance of probability

Double jeopardy means that an individual can't be tried for the same crime twice. Recent and ongoing advances in DNA evidence, though, can bring about exceptions.

Case Example: Stephen Lawrence

Stephen was a black 18-year-old student who was the victim of a racial attack. He was stabbed to death whilst waiting for a bus on the evening of 22 April, 1993. The Daily Mail picked up on the case 4 years later and published the names of five men who they believed were Stephen's killers. The headline used by the newspaper read: "Murderers: The Mail accuses these men of killing. If we are wrong, let them sue us." Calling the men 'murderers' was libelous and the defence in this instance was that it was true. It's worth noting that there was no defence of justification here or any privilege, but the men didn't sue the paper.

Below the Mail's headline was a picture of the 5 men who had been named. To this day, the men identified have not sued the paper. The case of Stephen Lawrence led to alterations in the Criminal Justice Act 2003. Following the changes, it was decided retrials would be allowed if there was 'new and compelling evidence' to justify doing so.



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