The dangers of fast fingers: Why we must all learn the basics of media law

by Sam Blackledge

If you are reading this article online, you more than likely have the tools to publish a response. You could leave a comment below the line, telling me how wrong I am about everything that follows. You could start a blog, expressing your dismay at falling standards in modern journalism. Or you could log in to Twitter, and instantly let all your followers know what a frightful cretin I am.

But before you jump at the chance to convert this wide open goal, take a second to reflect. Could your quick-witted insights land you in hot water? By all means, give it your best shot. Label me as the worst sort of stuck-up, patronising prig to ever to put fingers to keyboard. Go ahead, I can take it. But if you disparage my profession, by indicating for example that I am illiterate, corrupt or simply cannot write for toffee, then we might have a problem.

Do not panic, dear valued reader. I am not about to sue you for defamation. But recent events have thrown up a new slant on that old maxim – tweet with haste, repent at leisure. Last week Peaches Geldof – described so curtly by Marina Hyde as “model-journalist-whatever” – was the latest celebrity to be given cause to curse her fidgety fingers. Peaches tweeted the names of two women who allowed their children to be sexually abused by Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins, opening up the possibility of jigsaw identification and putting herself at risk of breaching a serious law.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 is one of the first things taught to trainee newspaper reporters. The act states that when a sexual offence has been committed against a person, “neither the name nor address, and no still or moving picture, should be published in that person’s lifetime if it is likely to lead members of the public to identify that person.” In other words, lifetime anonymity. This can be waived by the victim if they wish to tell their story, but it is rare and requires certain careful steps to be taken by reporter and editor.

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Peaches issued a mealy-mouthed half-apology, saying: “The question of whether or not to give anonymity to criminals in cases like this will go on forever.” She is right about this. It is a constant debate, along with the issue of whether defendants in rape trials should be named before a verdict. But at the moment the law stands, and Peaches could face a criminal investigation for naming the women, which could have led many people to identify the victims, their children.
This is hardly new territory. The rise and rise of social media has inevitably leads careless users to say the wrong thing. Just ask Alan Davies or Sally Bercow, both of whom were watching a BBC documentary last year when their enthusiasm got the better of them. Or the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of faceless tweeters who just can’t help themselves every time a famous face is arrested.

It sounds harsh, but the common theme here appears to be ignorance. Ignorance of how their comments might affect others, and how they could be misinterpreted. But also ignorance of the law. Media law is complex, but the basic points are pretty simple, and mostly common sense. A person is innocent until proven guilty. Nothing should be published that could cause a substantial risk of serious prejudice to a trial. Nor should anything appear that could lower a person in the estimation of society or expose them to ridicule without the required justification or proof.

Things get a bit more complicated when court orders are imposed, most commonly prohibiting identification of young people or key witnesses. But such orders are a matter of public record, and there is no reason why a member of the public shouldn’t be able to check before they tweet – or, if in doubt, don’t tweet at all.

Newspaper reporters recite these rules and regulations in their sleep, when not dreaming of our next big scoop. They are hammered in to us from the moment we step into the training room. This is not to say we do not make mistakes. Sticking with the Ian Watkins case, US website E!Online mistakenly used a picture of the Steps singer of the same name to illustrate the story. This was, as the perplexed star observed, “shoddy journalism”. If bona fide members of the media slip up like this, there are consequences. These should apply to everyone else too.

A study by Kinetic Worldwide earlier this year suggested that 28 per cent of all UK internet users are active on Twitter, more than double the number from two years ago. This would mean there are more than 12 million UK Twitter users, surely a conservative estimate. Only a very small fraction are trained in media law.

The freedom and sense of community that comes with social networking is a wonderful thing, perhaps the most wonderful thing of the online age. But it comes with responsibility. If you intend to write about current affairs, publishing your unmoderated comments to however many pairs of eyes around the world, you must have an understanding of what you can and cannot say. It is no longer good enough to simply say “I didn’t realise.”

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