*Course date Tuesday 27 March – email firstname.lastname@example.org to attend.
Media law can be a minefield for the uninitiated – from reporting court cases to Twitter spats escalating into acrimonious and vicious personal attacks.
Reporting violence against women can be particularly problematic and it can be a fine balancing act between reporting matters sensitively and remaining within the law.
That’s why the media can be ultra-cautious in how they report cases when criminal proceedings are live. Under Scots law, everyone is presumed innocent until convicted so they are only accused of offences and they have to be reported as allegations until there is a conviction.
It has to be remembered the conviction may be for a lesser offence than the original charge, for example a charge of murder could become a conviction for culpable homicide, so to label the accused a murderer would be wrong, and actionable.
Similarly a charge of rape could later be reduced to a conviction for sexual assault so it would be defamatory to describe the accused as a rapist.
It’s important that journalists know when a case becomes live because that’s when the risk of contempt of court kicks in. The sanction is serious, a criminal record for the individual journalist concerned if found guilty of contempt of court and a possible jail sentence with a maximum of two years. A case becomes live when an arrest is made, a warrant for an arrest is issued, or a written charge such an indictment is served. Once live, the press must not publish any material that could unduly influence proceedings.
Court reports are often criticised – unjustifiably, especially when a case is ongoing. The press has to work within the law and are limited in what they report and how they report it. The accused is presumed innocent until proved guilty. To enjoy protection of the Contempt of Court Act, media reports have to be fair, accurate and contemporaneous. While proceedings are live, there should be no speculation, no background pieces or any other coverage likely to influence the outcome of a court case.
Reporting cases of violence against women has to be handled with care. Journalists have to report the case fairly, accurately and contemporaneously while also reporting the issue sensitively. So while an accused may well give evidence attempting to justify his actions by blaming the victim, this would have to be reported. But the report should give the evidence context, reporting the allegations against the accused without the tone of the report blaming the victim rather than the alleged perpetrator. To introduce statistics of domestic abuse in a report at this stage, unless it formed part of the evidence presented to the court, could jeopardise the trial. Such background information should not be published until the case is completed and a verdict has been delivered.
Also in cases involving sex offences, victims cannot be identified. Children under 18 cannot normally be names and there can be other temporary or permanent reporting restrictions in place so it makes sense to check there are no restrictions in place.
So every journalist should know their stuff on contempt of court, whether a court reporter or not – and should definitely know what amounts to a defamatory statement and the consequences if sued.
It’s often the headlines, or on social media these clickbait teasers, that can prove problematic rather than the actual content of an article. If you’re writing snappy Facebook headers to hook the reader or a 280 character tweet. If it’s a court story it’s still got to be fair, accurate and contemporaneous to enjoy the protection of the contempt of court act.
And then there’s plain old bad taste. A report of a man being arrested after an incident where a woman’s hand was allegedly cut off had the simple catchword “Ouch”
Zero Tolerance has published media guidelines for reporting violence against women, Handle with Care, and guidelines for covering new legislation to protect against other forms of domestic abuse such as coercive control which the NUJ assisted with – What Journalists Need to Know About the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Bill.
You can find out more on the NUJ’s media law and ethics course on Tuesday March 27 delivered by Fiona Davidson, a qualified lawyer, journalist and media law tutor at the University of Strathclyde. To sign up email email@example.com