The Journalist and the Law: How to avoid being sued

There is a delicate balance between journalism and the law. The law has adapted to fit to the new types of media which encompass our world but the balance remains as to how the law can regulate the media when the media is the outlet which brings the information to the masses. If there is a need to know and a need to share, is the law there protecting or hindering?

Journalism 101 is that you don’t write anything that will get you sued. The categorizes are wide. Defamation, contempt and principles all govern certain media reports and a journalist must always consider the guidelines when writing a story. It’s not just the legal implications but also principles and ethics which must guide a story.

Possibly the most important rule is contempt. The smallest piece of information which shouldn’t be published e.g. names, addresses or matters of a legal case within a court can lead down a dangerous path of contempt. In the ‘Baby P’ case 2009, names were withheld from the media and the public for privacy. One of the accused had a separate impending trial and any information made public could be used as a defense for mistrial . It could be viewed that the accused would not be given a fair trial which is a human right and therefore the case could be dismissed on these grounds. If we want to live in a world with judicial strength, contempt must be the rule to hold utmost.

Another law to abide by is defamation. This is very common in celebrity magazines and is when the publications print a story or a picture which the celebrity believes to be defamation of character, or represents them in a negative light. One of the most recent is the British singer Adele’s defamation case against the French magazine ‘Public’ last week, which claimed that she had been in a sex tape and provided image stills within the magazine from the sex tape. Adele is strongly denying that she has ever been in or involved with the sex tape and that the woman in the picture is not her. Huge cases have been won with celebrities claiming defamation and it is one of the most important rules, especially in gossip magazines. When a publication prints a lie or a claim which is not backed up with relevant information, it can risk being sued by whoever they are writing about. Another case involved actress Katie Holmes in 2011 when she sued Star magazine for $50 million when an article was published claiming that Holmes was addicted to drugs. If you write about a celebrity, be prepared to check your work vigorously for defamatory claims. The fact is that celebrities can read and that they have a lot of money to sue you with.

Lastly, the rise of super-injunctions (or maybe not because we can’t even know if a super-injunction is in place) which have become common within our society. It’s often associated with celebrities looking to protect their private life. A super-injunction is granted by the courts and stops any information about the individual’s private life from being reported in any way shape or form and part of the super-injunction is that the media cannot report that a super-injunction is in place. It has become a legal term which is mostly associated with celebrities who do not want a certain event or aspect of private life reported in the press. However, with Ryan Giggs‘ case it did anything but. In May 2011, a mystery premiership footballer was reported to have been granted a super-injunction. Twitter and other social media outlets were buzzing with rumours of the individual and it was kept a secret until he was named in the House of Commons by an MP. Soon after, the media was reporting the footballer and twitter did not hold back accusing Giggs of his super-injunction. Then came the truth. Giggs had requested a super-injunction to stop a kiss-and-tell story with a reality television star from being reported. And soon after that, his sister-in-law was identified as another woman he had an affair with. All of this led Max Clifford to say that Giggs probably would have gotten away with it if he had not requested a “gagging order”. All it can prove it that sometimes the media works outside the law and the information probably would have been kept under wraps if the MP did not say Giggs’ name but after he did, it was anyone’s information.

The law and the journalism must coincide and a journalist must always draw on legal guidelines before producing any articles or features which could land them in hot water. However, the reality is that for every law-abiding, principle-conscious journalist, there will still be those who do not follow the guidelines and produce something which could damage a reputation, individual or organisation.  It is difficult for a  journalist as we are trained to be the first to find out new information, find a new angle and find an exclusive but any journalist will know that they are at risk if they do not consider legal implications. There is a balance between journalism and law and there seems a constant debate over freedom of the press. However, if one can just consider the legal guidelines, they will probably save themselves a lot of time (and money if they are sued). The law is there for a reason and it is non-negotiable. Just remember this quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: “Compromise is the best and cheapest lawyer”.

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