After 25 years’ experience in the local media, I am regarded as an expert in media law, which is a large part of the training of new journalists, writes Andrew Howard of Lakeside Media public relations.
Here are a few tips for the non-journalist thinking of publishing their own material:
1: There is a huge difference in media law between fact and comment. For your own protection, make sure comments are clearly labelled as such. Facts are sacred, comment is, as they say, free.
2: Defamation lawsuits can be costly, even though libel laws are currently being updated. Avoid them. Be certain of your facts, and make sure you can stand them up. Libel is printed or broadcast defamation, slander is spoken defamation. In law, a blog would be treated as broadcast.
3: When passing comment, you have certain protections under the laws of defamation. Your comment must be honestly held, and be made with no malice. So don’t produce contradictory comments, and don’t have a go at someone just because you don’t like them. That could be seen as malicious.
4: The Queen doesn’t sue for defamation. But that’s just tradition, and my honestly held opinion.
5: Be careful what you Tweet. One word: Newsnight. Publishers can be sued just as authors can, but in law it would appear Twitter is not a publisher so won’t help you fight your corner. Twitter, it seems, is seen as a conduit like a phone line, nothing more.
6: Not a legal matter perhaps, more ethics, but never publish a picture of a child without the permission of a parent or legally responsible person such as a headteacher. It breaches the Press Complaints Commission code, and will probably break whatever replaces the code. And don’t assume an adult with a child is a parent or legal guardian. An aunt can’t give permission for her nephew’s picture to be published.
7: Only broadcast media are particularly covered by the Representation of the People Act, so during an election period must remain utterly balanced. That’s why the BBC and ITV keep giving long lists of candidates. Printed media is not really affected by the Act and can be as biased or balanced as it chooses.
8: Drifting off topic a bit, if you’ve committed a crime, don’t try to keep the story out of the paper by saying it’s breaching your human rights. Media coverage of court cases is a vital part of our free society. Otherwise, people would just disappear off the streets and no one would be allowed to know why. And think where that could lead. But there are ways to address the balance a little…
9: On the subject of court, don’t bother ringing a paper to say that what they reported was wrong and Mr A never did what’s being alleged by the prosecution. Papers will most of the time just report what was said in court, it’s legally safer for them that way.
10: Never, ever name anyone who claims to be the victim of a sexual offence unless you have a signed affidavit from them saying you can. Otherwise they have anonymity for life. And you could end up with a criminal record.
For more advice on media law, contact Lakeside Media public relations by clicking here.