Seven deadly sins of court reporting

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Yes, I know, see point 7

COURT reporters, what are they then?

Well you may ask, because if you believe reports of the industry, they are a dying breed.

But then, they were dying back in the days I was numbing my backside on the press bench of Wrexham Magistrates Court as a wet-behind-the-ears junior reporter on the Evening Leader.

It is true that as the regional press has de-staffed, sorry, management-speak, cut jobs, increasingly the dedicated court reporter posts have decreased.

Bit the courts do still get reported, and my first editor, Reg Herbert, who would demand ‘every cough and spit’ from Wrexham Mags, I still believe that they are the best free show in town. All human life is there and it is no coincidence that Dickens was a court reporter, his novels populated by the characters he came across in the courts.

If you are a junior reporter heading to court for the first time, or a blogger who has spotted a gap in the market, here are seven deadly sins all court reporters should avoid…

  1. Don’t use your mobile phone. You can, usually, use your phone to file copy by email, or to text your newsdesk. The courts have been told that this should generally be allowed, and only in special circumstances should it be forbidden. If you have your phone turned on, make sure it is switched to silent. One reporter was more than a little embarrassed when, during the sentencing of a murderer, his phone went off playing a rendition of The Gay Gordons
  2. Don’t use your mobile phone as a camera. That souvenir selfie of your first day as a court reporter could see you spending your first day in the cells below. Photography during court proceedings is against the law, as various notices around the court will tell you. Taking a photograph with the court administration’s permission – such as of a retiring magistrate in an empty courtroom for a feature – would be fine. Thanks to Twitter follower Tom Webb for reminding me, you’re not allowed to use a phone, or any other device to record the proceedings either. Get a notebook, pen, and learn shorthand.
  3. Don’t bow. You will see officers of the court – the lawyers and ushers, bowing to the judge or magistrates as they leave or enter the court. I have seen some court reporters do this, but there really is no need. You are not involved in the proceedings, you are just reporting them.
  4. Don’t be intimidated. Court staff are overworked and can, sometimes, be less than helpful. Remain studiously polite, but insist on the information that you need in order to produce an accurate report of proceedings. Courts are under instruction from the Ministry of Justice to make court lists available, so make sure they give them to you when you need them.
  5. Don’t forget your law. You’re not expected to know the criminal law inside out, but you needs to know the basics for court reporting. Libel, specifically privilege defences for court reporting; contempt of court; reporting restriction on preliminary hearings; anonymity rules for children and sexual offences to name but a few. This is where I come in, I run training sessions on all this and I’m cheaper than getting a massive fine or paying libel damages. See my training page for details of the courses I run.
  6. Don’t forget court reports are about people, not the process. Don’t get caught up in the terminology or the complexities of the law. Tell the human story about the offence, the perpetrator, the witnesses and the victims.
  7. Don’t use a picture of a gavel to illustrate a court report. This is a courtroom, not an auction and they don’t use them in UK courts, ever. I’ll laugh at you if you do, as will the Twitter account @igavels, which was set up to highlight such abuse.

Why the media should not back Brexit

THIS is a hard sell, I know, but Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, should love the European Union.

Every day, he, along with every other UK newspaper editor, should pen a love letter to the bureaucrats of Brussels.

They should be praying fervently that on June 23 we vote Remain and stay in the EU.

Why? Because it is the only thing keeping him, and every other editor, website owner and blogger out of jail.

Anyone who allows third party content on a site under their control ought to give thanks we are in the EU where they are under the protection of the catchily-titled Electronic Commerce Directive 2000/31/EC.

This is a very useful bit of Brussels bureaucracy that was enacted to protect those providing platforms for others to access internet publication. So it protects ISPs and it has always protected newspaper forums – where readers get to express an opinion online about content.

Now, I don’t know whether you’ve ever been ‘below the line’ on a Daily Mail story, but it can be a very, very strange place to be. On stories involving race, gender, immigration and refugees, it is like lifting a rock on society and seeing the ugly stuff scuttling about underneath.

And this is not behaviour confined to the Daily Mail either. Recently The Guardian analysed comments made on stories on its site and while much was positive, there was nevertheless a range of comment that was ‘crude, bigoted and vile’.

The directive also protects any website with a comment function and it protects bloggers like me when people comment on my posts. As I said, enormously useful and given to us by the EU.

Often the main concern about online forums is the threat of libel and we do have our own homegrown bit of law that protects us in the Defamation Act 1996. The defence of innocent publication says that as long as you did not know the material was there and removed it promptly when notified, you do not have a liability.

But this very good bit of law only protects us against libel, nothing else.

Now, let’s delve ‘below the line’ again in a newspaper forum. You will soon see all manner of legal liability is to be found there, not just libel.

You can find contempt of court, harassment, inciting hatred, breaches of privacy and copyright violation to name but a few. Now, to be prosecuted for some of these offences it would need to be shown that we had some form of intent to commit an offence. But with some offences, such as contempt of court, there is no such requirement – if you’ve got the content on your site, you’re guilty.

The beauty of the EU directive is that it protects you from all legal liability for user-generated-content, not just libel.

At the moment if you are hosting a site which attracts content like that, you are protected by the EU Directive, so long as you are acting as a ‘conduit for publication’. If you are not actively editing or pre-moderating the content then you do not have any legal liability for it unless you leave it up on your site once you have been notified of it.

This defence also protects platforms like Twitter and Facebook against liability for anything posted by their users.

So anyone running a ‘lively’ forum better hope we stay in the EU.

If we don’t, then start hiring moderators, lots of them.

Reporting restrictions in Ambridge

PITY the poor court reporter on the Borsetshire Echo.

After years numbing their backside on the narrow press benches of that farming county’s courts, faithfully recording drink driving, poaching and a bit of argy-bargy of a weekend outside The Bull, they suddenly have a much bigger story on their hands.

You don’t have to be an Archers fan to know this tale of country folk has taken a sinister turn recently, culminating in Helen Titchener, nee Archer, plunging a knife, twice, into her abusive husband, Rob, almost causing a demise that many fans would have deemed rather timely.

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Helen (Louiza Patikis) and a not at all sinister-looking Rob (Timothy Watson)

The storyline, which has been building for a couple of years, has done a great deal to raise awareness of domestic abuse and the sort of ‘coercive control’ exerted by Rob on Helen. The reaction from the public has been extraordinary, summed up by the amazing response to an appeal launched by Paul Trueman, @paultrueman74 on Twitter.

He set about raising £1,000 for the charity Refuge, which helps victims of domestic violence. He set up a Justgiving page and the sum raised now stands at more than £127,000 .

Rob survived, Helen is behind bars awaiting trial, and her brother Tom has had a characteristically good whinge about the press coverage of his sister’s situation.

But what can the media report, if anything? Tom, while perusing the newsstands on the Sunday after Rob’s near-death, was horrified at the coverage – “They’re not meant to print anything,” he said, setting the teeth of this old court reporter on edge, and not just because of his shrill tone.

I doubt very much that Helen’s alleged offence would have attracted the attention of any national newspapers at this stage. She didn’t kill him, and there is nothing about her, or Rob, which would normally attract the attention of a national newspaper news desk, in my opinion. But let’s give the scriptwriters that bit of licence, as it allowed Tom to give the redtops a bit of a kick, which always plays well to middle England of a Sunday as they listen to the omnibus edition of The Archers, while reading their….er….redtops.

What then, are the rules on reporting this offence?

Firstly, when Helen was arrested, that means that proceedings in the case had ‘become active’ – the judicial ball is rolling and at some point in the future, Helen might face judge and jury. That means that any reporter working on the story ought to keep a weather-eye on the Contempt of Court Act 1981. This says that once proceedings are active you must not publish or broadcast anything which creates a ‘substantial risk of serious prejudice, or serious impediment’ to the proceedings.

So, what does that phrase mean? Is it a blackout on all coverage of the case?

Well no. The Contempt of Court Act was brought in to substantially replace the old common law of contempt, which was too draconian, and the new statute was intended to strike a balance between rights to a fair trial, and rights to freedom of expression.

So, as long as any detail you publish is not seriously prejudicial, then it should not cause you any difficulty. Note that prosecutions for contempt have to be authorised by the Attorney General, and cannot be taken against you by Borsetshire’s barmy magistrates, or even crown court judges – they have to refer it to the AG.

The sort of details that would be prejudicial are:

  • PIctures, E-fits, descriptions or video of a defendant ‘where identity is at issue at trial’ ie the accused is saying ‘it wasn’t me guv’nor’. There may be an ID parade and if you have published a photo, that reminds the eyewitness who to pick out, and it destroys the admissibility of their evidence. The Sun was fined £80k for this, and its then editor Kelvin MacKenzie was fined £20k. This is clearly not the case with Helen, but we often don’t know that for certain in the early stages of an inquiry, so you have to err on the side of caution.
  • Assumptions of guilt. Helen is not yet ‘the attempted murderer’ it is an allegation and can only be reported as such.
  • Evidence that will be disputed at trial. Be it Helen’s threat to kill her husband on Maundy Thursday, or Kirsty’s tales of Rob’s abuse that you have unearthed, you cannot report them yet. They cast the defendant and the victim in alight that might sway a juror, so should be avoided until the trial concludes.

Proceedings remain active until sentence according to the Act, but in practice you can run your background articles as soon as Helen is acquitted and carried shoulder-high from court…..sorry, or found guilty. Once either of these things happen, the jury is out of the equation and can no longer be influence by what you publish.

When Helen appears in court a different set of restrictions apply to what can be written. In the preliminary hearings before trial a report is mean to be restricted to:

  • Name of the court and magistrates
  • Name, age, address, occupation of the defendant
  • Names of the lawyers involved
  • Charges or a summary of them
  • What the court decides about the case – adjournment, allocation for trial etc
  • Arrangements for bail – residence, curfew etc
  • Whether legal as was granted

Pretty thin stuff, very procedural, as you can see. But if the Borsetshire Echo’s court reporter has anything about her, or him, they won’t let those restrictions get in the way of giving their reader a taste of court.

Descriptive passages detailing the oak-panelled grandeur of Felpersham Magistrates Court will be fine. Describing the organic, tie-dyed t-shirt that Helen wore for her first appearance will be ok too. Her mother, Pat, weeping in the public gallery, sitting beside Tony wringing his hands, again, will not be a breach of this law. What would be a problem here would be reporting any detail of prosecution evidence against Helen. A potential juror might read it and be more likely to find her guilty as a result.

However, if Helen’s counsel Anna Tregorran QC, wants to state during proceedings, or after, on the steps of the court, that her client would be vehemently denying the charges and expected to be acquitted on due course, that would be OK to report. Jurors are told to presume the defendant is not guilty and Ms Tregorran’s statement is merely affirming that. However, if Rob’s venomous mother Ursula, were to make a statement proclaiming that Helen was bang to rights, it’s a fair cop, she’s going down – that would not be allowed.

I also foresee a potential problem when this case comes to trial, in the shape of Helen’s young son, Henry. He witnessed the entire incident and will be called as a witness at trial. In such a case it would be very likely that the court would choose to anonymise him using a Section 45A order of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence act 1999. This would make reporting his evidence a little difficult.

The law says that any detail which allows someone to identify him is an offence. In such a case, even his age might be seen as an identifying detail. Caution is needed, and if in doubt the Echo’s court scribe ought to get some guidance from the judge on what details about Henry are likely to attract his ire.

One thing to note. Reports of trial proceedings are protected against a libel action by a defence called absolute privilege, for a fair, accurate report published at the same time as  the proceedings. So when, as I fully expect, Anna Tregorran shreds Rob Titchener in the witness box, revealing him as an abuser and a rapist, the Echo is free to splash that across its front without fear of Rob going to law.

I hope the Echo’s staff find this useful. If the editor is reading, I could squeeze a law refresher for the staff in before trial commences.

All of the above assumes that the scriptwriters aren’t going to throw us a curve ball and have Eddie and Joe Grundy spring her from a prison van and hide her away in the wilderness of rural Borsetshire. We live in hope.

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.

Tailor-made T&Cs for your website

A NUMBER of clients have contacted me recently for advice on website terms and conditions.

There are a couple of reasons for this – firstly, the changes brought in by the Defamation Act 2013 mean that in some circumstances a web forum host might need to pass on a user’s details to a libel claimant; secondly, well-written, tailored T&Cs can make the job of hosting and moderating online debate a lot easier.

The Defamation Act reforms include a new defence for online publishers hosting discussion, debate, reader reaction etc. What this means is that if a reader who posts something onto your site wants to defend what they have posted, then the legal action is between them and the claimant, potentially excluding you as the host.

For this to happen effectively you need to be able to give the poster’s details to the claimant. So there are issues about how people register for your site, and how you make them aware of the legal risks they may incur.

However, in informing them about these risks, you do not want to scare users away, or impinge upon their legitimate free expression on your site.

It is a tricky path to follow.

I write custom-made T&Cs for websites, including plain-English guidance on how to avoid the major legal pitfalls while using such a site.

The guidelines are useful in helping users understand their rights and obligations. A clear set of T&Cs are also very helpful in resolving disputes that can arise between posters.

If you would like to discuss how I can help your website, please contact me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Defamation Act 2013 – in force now, advice to website operators

I have been receiving a number of requests for guidance and training about the effects of the Defamation Act 2013.

The Act introduces a number of changes, but website operators are particularly interested in the impact it could have on them and the people who provide user-generated content for their sites – their community.

The Act, and in particular, its Section 5 defence changes the way in which websites respond to defamatory posts placed there by users. Whereas before a notice and takedown procedure, based on a European Union e-commerce directive, would evade liability on the part of the website, now in some circumstances, there is a requirement to give the claimant the details of who it was who posted the libellous material. However, if the poster is easily identifiable and contactable from details on the site, it may well be the operator need do nothing as the action lies between the claimant and the poster.

This shifts responsibility for defamatory posts from the host site onto the poster, which ought to reduce liability for websites. However, if a website operator wants to use the Section 5 defence and the poster details are not readily available, they need to comply with some tight deadlines, often just 48 hours, in responding to the claimant and giving them the details of who it was who posted the defamatory content.

So you may need to hand over details of your users – members of your community – to a libel claimant. This could change the nature of your relationship with your online community, many of who may be relatively unaware of the laws of libel and other legal risks they can incur.

Some websites are beefing up their registration procedures and T&Cs to take account of these changes, as well as offering guidance to their users on the main legal problems they may encounter. Others may want to stick to their original practice of takedown on notice. Deciding which procedure you want to adopt depends on the nature of your website and the conversations that it carries.

This is where I come in.

I have been writing guidelines for a number of organisations as well as providing training for moderators and community managers in the Defamation Act 2013 and other laws relevant to their role.

If you want more information about the services I provide in this area, contact me at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com

Five laws editors need to know better than their staff

BEING an editor places great demands on your time.

You might well have arranged training for your staff, but have you thought about your own? When was the last law refresher you attended?

You might reasonably leave day-to-day spotting of legals to your newsdesk and subs, but in some cases it is you that will be held responsible when things go wrong.

Here, briefly, are five areas of law an editor really needs to know.

1 – Sexual offences anonymity
There is now a large number of offences which give anonymity to a victim as soon as a an offence is reported and that report can be to anyone, not just police. Relatively new offences like trafficking and voyeurism are catching journalists out because they do not realise they are sexual offences.

The consequences of breach are very serious, a prosecution under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992 – and the CPS will sometimes prosecute both the paper and the editor. Conviction will result in a criminal record for a sexual offence.

2 – Contempt of Court

The law isn’t new, it’s been around since 1981, but what is new is Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s willingness to prosecute.

He said when he took office that prejudicial publication was a concern and he has been true to his word in allowing prosecutions for contempt.

They can still, theoretically, jail editors for contempt (last time that happened was the editor of The Mirror in 1949 over converage of the Haigh Acid Baths Murders) Nowadays they give the editor a personal fine, as well as the paper. Fines are unlimited, but tend to be in the tens of thousands of pounds.

Publication of material which would not have resulted in prosecution five years ago, is now being being taken to court.

3 – Defamation Act 2013

Libel remains your most potentially expensive problem. The new Act will probably be implemented from summer 2014. It contains new defences and new limits on how claimants can take action against you. You and your staff need to understand the changes it introduces.

4 – Bribery Act, RIPA, Misuse of Computers

The laws we saw Leveson explore at some length. You may well be taking on young, technically adept journalists. They, and you, need to know the legal limits on use of their technical expertise in obtaining stories. Likewise, what is a bribe, who can be bribed and how to avoid a bribery charge?

5 – Copyright

The next big issue coming down the track I think. Journalists are magpies and tend to regard the Internet as a limitless source of free material, especially imagery. People posting pictures online seem to be becoming more aware of their legal rights over such material and we will, I think, start seeing actions for copyright breach in the near future for the sort of online pilfering reporters have regarded as safe up until now.

If the above has given you pause for though, I run in-house law refreshers for editors and their staff. All sessions are tailored to the individual publication concerned. If you would like to talk about training, drop me a line at davidbanksmedialaw@gmail.com