They’re off – quick guide to the rules of election reporting

THIS is going to be an interesting few weeks as we approach the general election and coverage will be scrutinised by the various parties as never before.
If you want to stay the right side of the law here is a quick guide to the various law that could cause you difficulty.
This is an amended post I ran five years ago on an old blog, but a lot of people found it useful, so it bears repetition.

Firstly, libel, it’s always with us, but elections are that special time when candidates lay into each other with abandon and occasionally say something defamatory. Remember it is no defence to say you are simply reporting what someone else said (but see below). Anyone who repeats a libel is potentially liable for it and a defamed candidate may decide to sue the relatively wealthy media outlet that has repeated the libel rather than the relatively poor opponent who originated it. Beware accusations of racism, fascism and plain old lying.
 
However, if you are reporting remarks made at a public meeting, or press conference, then you have a defence of qualified privilege, so long as you are reporting fairly, accurately, on a matter of public interest and without malice. Don’t get overly worked up about malice – the malice of the speaker does not ‘infect’ your report of their speech and has never yet destroyed a defence of qualified privilege mounted by a media organisation in these circumstances.
 
False statement about election candidates. Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 makes it a criminal offence “to make or publish a false statement of fact about the personal character or conduct of an election candidate, if the purpose of publishing the false statement is to affect how many votes he/she will get.”
 
The false statement must be statement of fact, not opinion. It is a defence to show at the time of publication you had reasonable grounds for believing the statement to be true. A journalist who published false claims that a candidate was homosexual was fined £250 in 1997. Note that it is no longer defamatory to say that someone is gay (unless it implies they are dishonest by concealing their true sexuality) but it could contravene this law. The reason being that if the voters included those whose religious beliefs cause them to hold anti-gay views, then such a statement could affect turnout for the candidate.
 
The 1983 Act also makes it an offence to publish a false claim that a candidate has withdrawn from the election if you know the claim is false and it is being made to promote the election of another candidate.
 
Impartiality of broadcasters. The Ofcom code and BBC Editorial Guidelines have detailed guidance on achieving impartiality. Several radio stations have been fined by Ofcom after presenters declared political allegiance on air.
 
Exit polls. Section 66A of the 1983 Act makes it an offence to publish the results of an exit poll before polling has finished. The reason being if the exit poll reveals a runaway winner it may discourage people from voting an thwart the democratic process. It is also an offence to publish a prediction of an election result if it is based on such a poll.
Those using social media to gauge how people are voting need to be especially careful here. It might be technically possible to make predictions based on hashtagged tweets etc and to map how the vote is going. Make sure you do not publish anything based on these metrics on election day before the polls close.
 
Election counts. Admission to the count is the responsibility of the returning officer. There is no national media policy, so best make contact early to make sure of arrangements for the night.
 
Social Media. This election will be as hard-fought on the battlefields of Twitter and Facebook as it is on the street and we have already seen the early skirmishes.
While the behaviour of the various parties may leave much to be desired, don’t get dragged into it as a journalist. The laws above apply just as much to your social media posts as they do to your print or website publication.
Enjoy the race, but let’s be careful out there.

Worrying orders of the court

A CASE in the magistrates court on the Isle of Wight should cause concern for reporters covering the courts.

The case, detailed here in Hold the Front Page, concerned neglect of a child, and at an earlier hearing magistrates had imposed a S39 order under the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 anonymising the child.

This has the effect of anonymising the mother of the child as well, because you cannot practically report the case in such circumstances and name the mother, because it will lead to the identification of the child.

The Isle of Wight County Press wanted to challenge the order, as it is usually accepted that very young children, in they case they were one and two, are too young to be affected by negative publicity and do not need such an order to be made. This is set out quite clearly in the Judicial College’s publication – Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts – every court reporter should have a copy of it.

However, as is detailed in HTFP, the reporter in court was ‘put off’ by the clerk who said there were no new facts to warrant reconsidering the order. Note to reporters – do not be ‘put off’ insist on the court at least considering your request.

In my view what is concerning about the case though is not the court’s failure to hear the paper’s objection, but it’s reasons for imposing the order in the first place.

The magistrates placing the order were concerned that online publication mean that a very young child might be subject to adverse effects of publicity at some time in the future.

This line of reasoning is not new. I have heard it expressed now a number of times by judges and at Law Commission seminars. There is clearly a concern that the cliche of today’s newspaper being tomorrow’s chip-wrapper no longer holds true and that online archives are changing attitudes.

I expect this issue to emerge again and again in years to come and the media need to come up with a good answer, or the courts will continue to shut down their reporting.

My thanks to Rob Preece @RobPreeceOnline for pointing this case out to me.

Getting a defendant’s address

This is a quick post on what to do if a court is obstructive in providing details of a defendant, including their name and address.

In the various training sessions I carry out for media, this is a fairly constant complaint – that magistrates, judges and court staff are sometimes reluctant to give reporters access to very basic details about a defendant.

There are some very limited circumstances in which a court can restrict reporting of some details about a defendant, but these are exceedingly rare, and in any event should be enforced by the relevant court order, allowing for representation from the media.

This is not the situation I am talking about here. I am told by many reporters in different parts of the country that when they ask for a defendant’s address in particular, they are told that the court will not provide that information even where there is no legal reason whey they should not do so.

Any judge, magistrate or member of court staff behaving in such a manner is wrong and here is why.

Firstly, it is contrary to the principles of open justice. In normal proceedings everyone is properly identified – defendant, witnesses, judges, magistrates and yes, even the lawyers.

Secondly, a defendant’s address is part of his identity, it differentiates him from other people of the same name. This was stated very clearly by the Record of Liverpool David Clark, in R v Carroll in 2000, where a defendant fearing reprisals wanted his address to be withheld.

Thirdly, a court behaving this way is acting in defiance of its own rules on reporting restriction. Any reporter facing this situation should refer the court to this document – Reporting Restrictions in the Criminal Courts – which sets out their obligations.

See page 23, which explains the requirements on the courts to make lost available and that, “At a minimum the lists should contain each defendant’s name, age, address and, where known, his profession and the alleged offence. Courts will not breach the Data Protection Act 1998 by providing journalists with such information.”

It is perfectly clear what the courts should provide. Any judge or magistrate who objects to providing this information really ought to take the matter up with the Ministry of Justice and refrain from restricting information on a whim.

If you want me to train your staff in challenging obstructive courts, and other media law matters, contact me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Journalists in the dock

EDITORS have always had many responsibilities but one that perhaps not everyone appreciates is criminal liability for what their paper publishes.

For certain offences it is not the newspaper company that ends up in the dock, but the editor, facing a conviction for a criminal offence.

There are a number of offences that they can commit in this way – contempt of court; identifying a victim of a sexual offence, or identifying a child in proceedings who has been given anonymity by the court.

It is this last offence that Brian Aitken, outgoing editor of The Journal, Trinity Mirror’s regional morning newspaper published out of Newcastle, was convicted of earlier this month.

His paper reported on a sexual offence committed by a teacher. In such cases the anonymity given to the victim is statutory sexual offence anonymity.

This would mean the victim’s name and address would be forbidden and any other detail likely to identify her – so her school if it is a reasonably large one, is unlikely to be an identifying detail.

However, Mr Aitken and his journalists did not know that an order under Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 had also been placed on the child victim. Section 39 is similar in its scope to sexual offence anonymity, but it also expressly forbids the naming of the school.

So The Journal, and Mr Aitken, had unknowingly committed an offence. A decision was taken to prosecute Mr Aitken and he was convicted of the offence and fined £1,600, and so now has a criminal record that would show up on a CRB check and could interfere with his life if, for example, he applied for a U.S. visa for a holiday.

On the face of it, an editor who publishes information in violation of a court order might get little sympathy. But it’s far from straightforward.

Firstly, it is not as easy as you might think to find out whether a court has made an order in any particular case.

There is no central record kept of such orders, and certainly no online database to check. You are reliant on the diligence of court staff in finding such matters out, and that is variable to say the least.

This is despite the fact that any court making such an order is under an obligation to communicate it to anyone reporting that hearing, or any subsequent hearing, in writing. This was established in the case of R v Central Criminal Court ex p Godwin and Crook which said that any section 39 order must be specific in who it applies to; must be in writing and must be communicated to any media who are not at the hearing where it was made.

The booklet ‘Reporting Restrictions in the Magistrates Court’ – effectively a statement of the courts’ own rules for making restrictions reiterates this and says: “When a discretionary restriction order is made, it is desirable that the media are given every assistance to comply with it.

Magistrates may, therefore, think it helpful to say that if there are any particular problems arising from the making of the order which the media wish to raise in a written note, further guidance will be given in open court.

Every court should have a proper procedure for ensuring that adequate steps are taken to draw any discretionary restriction order to the attention of media representatives who may not have been in court when the order was made and the court should ensure that the procedure has been followed.”

In my experience magistrates nod at the press bench and mutter ‘we make the usual order’ – no written copy, no communication of the order to subsequent hearings.

I know of courts that have been so lax in this that when a reporter queried whether an order had been made, the court was reconvened by the judge specifically to make an order on the case, which he had forgotten to do during the proceedings.

So, if we are going to see prosecutions like this take place and a strict adherence to the rules, then perhaps newspapers ought to insist on a similar adherence to the letter of the law.

Maybe they should insist that every order, every Section 4, Section 11 and Section 39 is given to them in writing, setting out exactly what restrictions the judge or magistrates have in mind.

We have seen similar prosecutions of editors under sexual offence legislation where their paper has accidentally put too much detail in about a victim, risking identification.

This action is a world away from the deliberate actions of a mob targeting a victim, as we saw in the case of Ched Evans, yet in law they are treated as the same offence.

This practice of prosecuting editors and sometimes journalists for crimes of publication is, in my view, wrong.

Very often they are strict liability offences where absence of intent is irrelevant to the prosecution.

These laws stem from an era, probably fictional, when the editor sat at the hub of the newspaper, examining every word they published. As for the deterrent effect of such prosecution, do they seriously imagine that editors across the country sit poised ready to identify victims?

A far more effective deterrent would be proper communication of court orders to all media, as set out above. The offences, rather than crimes, could be dealt with as civil matters with damages for the victim – which at least one victim has pursued, receiving more in damages than she did as criminal injuries compensation.

Today, in a country with a supposedly free press, we are seeing too many journalists’ homes raided at dawn, too many held on long bail, and too many in the dock.

It is time the practice of criminalising editors and journalists for accidentally breaching anonymity was abolished.

IPSO, Sunday Mirror and Brooks Newmark

THE Independent Press Standards Organisation is being tested pretty early on in its existence after the revelations in the Sunday Mirror which led to the resignation of Brooks Newmark MP.

The story by now is widely known – he sent a picture of himself, or rather part of himself, to what he thought was a young woman, but which in actual fact was a reporter who had set up a fictitious social media account.

This raises a number of ethical issues, some of which I will try to discuss here, including subterfuge and privacy.

There are potential legal issues over data and the photographs of two young women used without their permission on the fake accounts, but they have been well covered elsewhere by Jon Baines among others, so I will only look at the ethical issues of their use here.

The core issue in this is whether the use of a fake account to contact Mr Newmark was justifiable. This kind of activity is covered in the Editors’ Code of Practice under clause 10 on subterfuge and the use of clandestine devices.

As a rule such tactics should only be used where it can be shown to be in the public interest to do so and it is the only way of obtaining the information.

Is it in the public interest to reveal Mr Newmark’s activity in this way? The Code of Practice defines public interest as covering, among other things detecting or exposing ‘serious impropriety.’

Mr Newmark was a minister of state and charged with bringing women into politics. If a man in his position is sending naked pictures of himself to a young woman he does not know, I think it is a matter of serious impropriety and therefore of public interest.

But that is not the end of the public interest test here. Importantly, there has to be a public interest reason established before any use of subterfuge. This is to prevent so-called fishing expeditions which are retrospectively justified by the wrongdoing they unearth.

On the face of it then, and as many commentators said, the Sunday Mirror story looked problematic. The fake Twitter account, under the name of Sophie Wittams, had followed a number of Tory MPs and had tweeted to them. It appeared that Newmark was the only one to swallow the bait. Critics said it was a classic fishing expedition, and therefore it was unjustifiable under the Code.

However, the reporter who had got the story was Alex Wickham, who works for the Guido Fawkes blog. Yesterday Guido posted an explanation of the story, which can be seen here.

In this explanation it is denied that this was a fishing expedition, but rather, acting upon information received, it was targeted on Newmark. The follows of other MPs were just to make the fake account look genuine.

IPSO a now has to pick its way through these two conflicting versions of events, but that is not as difficult as it may seem.

If Newmark was the target, not all the MPs, then there ought to be documentation – emails, notes or memos – which confirm that he was the target when the investigation was set up.

Furthermore, it ought to be possible to show that the way the fake account behaved toward innocent MPs followed for ‘cover’ was different to the way it interacted with Newmark.

Showing this preparation and behaviour would verify the account of events given by Guido, and it can be done without revelation of confidential sources who might have put them onto the story in the first place.

So, it will require a little forensic investigation by IPSO of the birth of this story and how it was pursued.

This still leaves the issue of the use of photographs of two women by the fake account. I think, on the face of it, this is difficult to justify ethically and Guido does not mention it in the defence published yesterday. Though the pictures were publicly accessible, their use in this way could, I think, be a breach of the clause of the Code which covers privacy. The editor-in-chief of the Sunday Mirror, Lloyd Embley, has already apologised for their use.

Critics of IPSO have already decided that this was a fishing expedition in breach of the Code. That might be true. It might also be true that there is an arguable public interest defence here.

I think we should wait to see what IPSO unearths.

* Declaration of interest. One of the many companies I work with is Mirror Group Newspapers, where I provide law and ethics training, and I occasionally write for The Daily Mirror and its websites.

IPSO, what’s the difference?

IPSO – the Independent Press Standards Organisation – took over from the Press Complaints Commission today.

How we got here is a matter of record, featuring the phone-hacking scandal; the Leveson Inquiry; prosecutions past, and more to come.

You will find plenty of critics of both IPSO, and the alternative Royal Charter regulation elsewhere. What I will talk about here is the practical impact the new regulator will have on those who have signed up for it.

Firstly, for reporters, the important thing to know is that the Editors’ Code of Practice remains the code of ethical conduct that governs your work. You need to know the code and how it is applied. Importantly, you must adhere to the ‘spirit’ of the code, and to understand this you must make it your business to know how the code has been applied.

It is as important to know your way around the code as it is to understand libel, shorthand, or how to write a decent intro – it is a basic tool of your trade.

In this sense then, not a lot has changed, the code remains the same.

What has changed is the way in which complaints under it are going to be handled. This is a matter that editors, deputies, senior managers and newsdesk execs need to concern themselves with.

From now on, how you handle a complaint is going to be crucial because in some instance you do not have the backstop of the PCC mediating for you.

If IPSO receives a complaint about a story, in the first instance it will refer the complainant to the publication’s complaints handling procedures.

Publishers therefore must have effective procedures in place to handle such complaints.

Staff need to know what to do with a complaint. It must be logged properly, reported to line managers, and dependent on the nature of the complaints elevated to the managers who are able to resolve it properly.

Some complaints, requiring perhaps a simple correction, can be dealt with by a reporter and newsdesk. Other more serious complaints will need the intervention of the editor. You need procedures in place to determine which is which and to act accordingly. All this needs to be done in 28 days.

If the complaint is not resolved in that time, that is what IPSO gets involved.

If the matter has to go to IPSO because of failures in the complaints-handling processes of the publication, that is when they need to be worried.

If they are suspected of a systemic failing to uphold standards, then IPSO can come in to investigate. This could mean interviewing staff, looking at notes and other records and demanding access to newspaper systems. It could be a very uncomfortable process.

Following on from that, if such an investigation finds serious failings to uphold standards, there is the ultimate sanction of a financial penalty.

So, as I said, complaints handling is vital, as is note-keeping, recording of newsdesk advice and decisions; legal advice sought and given; and editorial involvement. There needs to be clear guidance given to all staff about the sort of issue that requires editorial clearance before any action is taken that might be a breach of the code.

No-one wants to be the first publication to fall foul of an IPSO adjudication. if you have not done so already, sort out your complaints procedures now.

And let’s be careful out there.

UK press coverage of the death of Robin Williams

THIS is a very quick blog post about press coverage of the death of Robin Williams.

Apologies if I do not tease out every argument, but I am up to my eyes in another project, about ethical codes of reporting as it happens.

TRIGGER WARNING – I am going to write here about the apparent suicide of Robin Williams and in as vague terms as I can about the method he used. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please consider whether you want to read any further. The Samaritans in the UK can be contacted on 08457 90 90 90.

Many people have objected on social media to the way the tabloid press in particular covered the death of Robin Williams. They complaints that I have seen focus on the amount of detail included about how he took his own life and the intrusive and insensitive nature of the coverage.

I will deal with those issues separately.

Firstly, the amount of detail in the reports.

There were four elements to this as I see it:

*He hanged himself

*He used a belt

*He was found seated

*He had also slashed his wrists using a pocketknife

The Editors’ Code of the Press Complaints Commission was amended to reflect concerns about the reporting of suicide, with the insertion of Clause 5(2)

*ii) When reporting suicide, care should be taken to avoid excessive detail about the method used.

The PCC Codebook, which elaborates on the code expands on this. Excessive detail, it is feared, can lead to copying by others who read about the method used.

Examples of excessive detail include the amount and type of a prescription drug used; the way in which a chainsaw was set up by one person to kill himself and the manner another set up equipment to electrocute himself. The publications that included these details were all censured by the PCC.

So were the details included by the papers excessive?

That he hanged himself using a belt, and that he slashed his wrists are, in my opinion, not excessive. These are very common methods people use to take, or make attempts on, their own life.

The one detail I am troubled by is that he was found in a seated position. This indicates how he hanged himself. I am not sure it amounts to excessive in the way the cases above do and doubt that it will amount to a breach of the code. However, if I had been editing that story, I would have taken out that detail in particular.

On then to the sensitivity of the way in which the star’s death was reported.

This is a very complex issue. People sometimes criticise the tabloid press for reporting an issue, while still reading every word of the content. Conversely, sometimes criticism is levelled at the papers for a ‘sensational’ (ie attention-grabbing) front page – and the nuances of coverage inside might be overlooked.

Some people feel that any examination of the lives of the dead while their families are still grieving is an unjustifiable intrusion . At the opposite end of the spectrum, some believe that after a life lived in the limelight, the death of a celebrity is public property too. A reasonable path lies somewhere between those two extremes.

Robin Williams had a long, interesting career as a comedian and actor. He has millions of fans worldwide and his untimely death will be the subject of much conversation and, yes, speculation among those fans. It is, I think, unrealistic to expect the media not to reflect that shock, and to examine the circumstances surrounding his death.

Furthermore, any coverage in the UK ought to be seen in the context of US coverage, where, as the family were appealing for time to grieve, US TV was running live helicopter shots of Williams’ home. The fact that one country’s media is more excessive than our own does not excuse bad behaviour, of course, but the coverage here and its potential impact on those grieving should be viewed in that context.

It is interesting to note that the one media that seems to have caused greatest distress in the immediate aftermath of Robin Williams’ death is social media, in particular Twitter, where trolls attacked his daughter, Zelda, causing her to close her account.

Still, that social media sometimes behaves more distressingly than mainstream, is nothing new.

I think what does, to some extent, excuse the coverage is that much of it was already in the public domain from previous coverage, or else was being widely published and discussed in US media.

I think that many of the complaints were about matters of taste and there the Editors’ Code does not go. No ethical code can take account of matters of taste, which are an editor’s discretion.

I know many will not agree with my views, and many were upset by the UK coverage.

If that is the case make your feelings know to the editors concerned; don’t buy their papers; don’t click their websites. If enough of you out there make your point that way, behaviours might change.

As I tweeted during the furore after his death, newspapers are a daily democracy, fighting for your money at the newsagent and your clicks on their websites. Use your vote wisely.