Media law refresher/intro days in London and Manchester

Law Refresher/Intro to Media Law

Tuesday June 18 and Tuesday July 16, The Space Centre, Judd Street, King’s Cross WC1H 9NT, 10am-4pm, Manchester, Tuesday, July 9, venue TBC, 10am -4pm

A one-day course covering the basics of media law that can affect anyone publishing in the UK either in print or online. It includes areas such as libel, contempt, reporting the courts, sexual offences, children, privacy&confidentiality, copyright and ethics in light of the Leveson report and recent decisions made by Parliament and the newspaper industry.

If you would like more information, or want to book a place on any of the courses, email me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

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Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

IF you want to find mistakes in papers look at the pictures.

The Sun on Sunday has just paid out in a libel settlement after running a story about a man discovering he was the son of Fred West – but the picture they printed on the front page was the man’s half-brother who was entirely unconnected to the serial killer. It has been reported that a five figure sum has changed hands as a result.

I’ve some sympathy for the Sun on Sunday, such things are all too easily done and let me share with you the story of one such disaster, which, sadly, I had a hand in. I’ve blogged this elsewhere on a previous occasion, but it bears repetition as it highlights the legal dangers of the photograph and its caption.

This is back in the days when I was a jobbing hack on the Daily Post and it was my turn to ‘do the calls.’

This was the round of phone calls made several times a day to the emergency services to see if there were any crimes, deaths, disasters or other human misery happening for us to report on. It was also in the days when such calls were made to human beings – usually a duty inspector in the police control room, or a desk sergeant at individual police stations. Since then these humans, who one could have a conversation with, have been replaced by pre-recorded ‘voicebanks’, which are a journalistic dead-end and should only ever be used as a starting point for a story by any reporter worth their salt.

Anyway, I digress, back to the sex and death. You see the virtue of talking to a human is that they do love a bit of gossip and so it was that morning when I made the call and was informed of a sudden death in a nearby market town, woman in custody as a result. Slowly, but surely, the story emerged.

It would seem the local brass band was a hotbed of illicit passion, and the alleged crime involved two of its members. She was 30, he was in his 60s, and after band practice they would adjourn to the local marshes in his roomy estate car where they would consummate their affair. Both were married.

The police were holding her as they believed she’d hit him in a lovers’ tiff, causing a fatal heart attack. She said he had died while they made love. The Daily Post at the time was intent on becoming the ‘Daily Mail of the North’ and for us the story had everything – sex, death, death caused by sex, and a brass band.

So, I set out hotfoot to the market town with a photographer, and crucially got to the bandmaster before word had spread of just how this bandsman had died. The family were letting people know of his death, but were, understandably, not sharing the grisly detail.

Most important, we got a photo of the band. Dead man, back row centre, and the bandmaster never queried it, but we got him to name every single band member, and there she was, in the front row – the, quite literally, femme fatale.

So, were were very happy with ourselves, we had the story, the picture, the whole lot and off to Liverpool it all went to be printed the next day in the Daily Post.

The next day, when I opened the paper, it was one of those moments as a reporter and you will all have them, when you close the paper, wanting what you see not to be true.

Because, on the front row far right there was a man in a wheelchair, and there was no-one sitting or standing behind him – what a designer would call ‘dead space’ a blank wall. So the man in the wheelchair was cropped off to neaten the pic. However, when the caption, which has already been written, reads: “Mrs X, fourth from the right,” the crop means that the identification moves along to the right. So instead of accusing the femme fatale of killing a fellow bandsman with her amorous attentions, we accused the 16-year-old schoolgirl sitting next to her.

So, I have some sympathy with the Sun on Sunday, as I said, it is easily done.

But if you do do it, then get it sorted quickly, which is precisely what the Daily Post did.

Firstly, we didn’t wait for a complaint. Eric Langton, who was on the DP newsdesk – one of the best news editors I’ve ever worked with, a real newsman, totally unflappable and a pleasure to work for – went straight round to the girl’s family with a letter of apology from the paper.

Her dad, you will understand, was not a happy man. Let’s face it, his daughter is 16 – she’s not on drugs, she’s not pregnant, not a tattooed death metal fan. She plays in a brass band for heaven’s sake, she is every dad’s vision of perfection, and here you have the Daily Post suggesting she kills elderly bandsmen with sex.

But, in typically civilised British fashion, he was polite with Eric and said that what action they took depended on how she reacted, she was at school and hadn’t seen the paper yet.

She arrived home, took one look at the Post…..and burst out laughing. She didn’t think anyone in the town would really think it was her, and didn’t think it would be taken seriously. So, they didn’t sue us. Nor did they want a correction, which they felt would just draw more attention to the story.

A close call, but a lesson that being straight with people and admitting your error, no matter how stupid it may make you look, can get you off the hook.

I’m not sure we would have been so lucky if it had happened now. Today as soon as it appeared on our website, her schoolmates would have Facebooked and Tweeted it to all and sundry, whereas we were just in print back then – chip-paper a day later – and I think that would put more pressure on the faily to take action and nail the lie of the story.

Oh, and the femme fatale? She was acquitted at trial.

Tweeting your way into prison

I ARRIVED home one Friday evening to a flurry of messages from sports reporters who follow me on Twitter.

“You have got to get on Twitter and see what Joey Barton is up to,” they said.

I logged on to find that Barton had decided to give the world the benefit of his thoughts on the viability of John Terry’s not guilty plea to a charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – a charge for which he had yet to stand trial.

Barton was typically forthright and one memorable tweet described Terry’s plea as an insult to any juror’s intelligence.

Was Barton, I was being asked somewhat hopefully it has to be said, up to his neck in contempt and would his next fixture be in court facing the Attorney General?

Fortunately for football, and Twitter’s, favourite bad boy @Joey7Barton was in the clear because Terry’s case was to be tried by magistrates, who are beyond the influence of the media, and certainly incapable of being swayed by the tweets of a footballer. Indeed, Terry was eventually found not guilty.

But as was clear from his tweet mentioning jurors, Barton didn’t know this, and nor did the many people who assumed he was about to be prosecuted for contempt.

This was a sign of things to come. Following press inquiries, the Attorney General’s office announced the following Monday that Barton would not be facing any action. But since he was appointed the AG, Dominic Grieve QC, has made it clear he takes contempt very seriously and has warned that he would prosecute bloggers and tweeters as well as traditional media if they overstepped the mark.

So it came to pass last month that two men were given nine-month suspended prison sentences after they admitted contempt by publishing on Twitter and Facebook photographs purporting to show the killers of James Bulger, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables as adults. Both are subject to a court order banning publication of any details about their new identities, location or photographs of them.

The case is the latest in a long line of incidents where ordinary members of the public have taken to social media and found themselves charged with a crime; facing substantial damages in a civil action or else doing untold damage to their own reputation through an errant post.

We are all publishers now, but mainstream publishers know the law, and even they get into trouble reasonably often. Setting up a Twitter or Facebook account is the work of moments and if memory serves does not entail a run-down of the legal pitfalls that await the unwary.

Perhaps it should, because the past year has seen a catalogue of cases illustrating the variety of ways in which individuals can break the law online.

For example, some supporters of Ched Evans, a Sheffield United and Wales footballer, took to Twitter when he was convicted of rape, naming the victim. Ten of them were tracked down by North Wales Police. They now have a criminal record for an offence under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992.

Even the judicial process itself can be derailed by the injudicious use of Twitter or Facebook. One juror had to be discharged after she confessed to her Facebook friends that she was having difficulty deciding the case she was trying so asked them to help. Another was sentenced to eight months in prison after she Facebook friended a defendant she had just acquitted and gave her a running commentary on the two co-defendants that were still being tried.

Police forces are finding their time increasingly being used to investigate messages on social media.

The man who sent obnoxious tweets to diver Tom Daley after he ‘only’ managed an Olympic bronze found himself the victim of Tweetmob after the diver RTd him and then got a knock on the door from the police who issued a warning for harassment.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recently issued interim guidance on when it would be suitable to prosecute such messages. However, even with that guidance in place, as more and more people sign up for such media, the caseload for police and the court can only increase.

And that is just the criminal side of the issue. The capacity for user to publish libels and breach others’ privacy on social media is huge.

A retweet takes just two button pushes, and as we saw from the Lord McAlpine libel case, several hundred people found that all too easy to do. It seems the retweeters are being let off with an apology, deletion of the tweet and a nominal donation to charity. Others who tweeted more are embroiled in actions launched by the peer.

There seems to be a perception among those who find themselves in difficulty that a post on social media is not like publication. Many will say things like it’s ‘just my opinion’ or that they were simply not aware that what they were doing was against the law.

But it is. Conversations confined to the saloon bar or the dinner party table are being committed to the internet where they are permanent and searchable.

And here lies the challenge for our lawmakers, and to an extent the publishing platforms that allow people to get into so much trouble.

It may be that well-publicised cases such as the purported Bulger killer pictures and the McAlpine libel may serve as a deterrent. If they do not have that effect then the DPP, CPS and the government perhaps need to examine the law to see whether they are content for ever-larger numbers of people to criminalise themselves in this way.

We cannot expect Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and others to police every item that is published by their users, nor would we want them to for well-founded reasons of freedom of speech. However, they could give better guidance to users when opening an account about the kinds of material that can get them into legal trouble.

If nothing is done, then the police, courts and, before long I predict, prisons are going to be busy.

If you are worried about your own, or your employees’ liability for what is published on social media, I run courses on how to make the most from these platforms, while avoiding potentially serious and costly legal problems. Contact me via the contacts page, above

Nigel Evans, contempt and clues about alleged victims

WAS Nigel Evans flirting with contempt of court by so publicly protesting his innocence on TV at the weekend?

That was the question I was asked after he had appeared before cameras to deny the allegations of rape; talk of his shock that they had been made and thank his constituents and friends for their support.

We have seen this sort of statement often recently, especially by those caught up in Operation Yewtree and other inquiries stemming from the Jimmy Savile scandal (although it must be pointed out Evans’s case is in no way linked to those wider inquiries.) Celebrity emerges from home after being released on bail to make a statement to camera insisting they are not guilty, that they will be proved so in due course and to thank their family, friends and fans for their support

Could such a statement be a problem legally? Well there is no doubt that contempt of court is a risk now. Evan has been arrested, so proceedings are active for the purposes of the contempt of court act. That means that nothing should be published or broadcast now which could cause substantial risk of serious prejudice to any future proceedings.

Will claiming you are not guilty create such a risk? If it is simply an insistence you are not guilty, then no. Thanks expressed for support are also fine. Remember any jury will be told on the first day of trial that the defendant is presumed innocent.

I do think that Stuart Hall’s recent statement, which went beyond proclaiming his own innocence to ask why those making the allegations had not reported them before, skirted the edges of contempt. And I think Mr Evans was unwise to talk about detail of one of his accusers and his recent contact with him.

I don’t believe it cleared what is quite a high bar for a contempt prosecution, even with the current Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s seeming enthusiasm for prosecution.

However, I do think what he said could be an identifying detail about one of the complainants. They get anonymity for life once they make an allegation of rape and that forbids publication of any detail that would identify them as the victim of a sexual offence.

So if anyone, not necessarily everyone, can work out who the victim is from a detail you have published or broadcast, then you are guilty of an offence, and a sexual offence at that. The detail does not have to be obvious things like the complainant’s name or address, just some fact that enables someone, perhaps someone who knows them, to put two and two together and identify them as the victim.

Victims’ anonymity lasts a lifetime and can only be lifted with their consent, that of a judge, or if they are subsequently charged with an offence in relation to the complaint such as perjury or perverting the course of justice. Any decision to prosecute is made by the Crown Prosecution Service in this instance, not the Attorney General.

 It is likely we will see more statements like that of Mr Evans, but if such accused do no want to add to their list of legal woes, they need to take care what they say