Tag Archives: blogging

MA Online Journalism: Law for bloggers and journalists with Paul Bradshaw

Warning: this is a long post, get yourself a cuppa before you start….

Last week I popped along to the Coffee Lounge in Brum for one of Paul Bradshaw‘s open MA Online Journalism sessions. This one was about the law & blogging, something I obviously need to be aware of with The Lichfield Blog. As a publisher myself you’ll probably find more of that angle to these notes.

Before I try and turn my 6-pages of notes into blog post form I’m going to re-iterate Paul’s disclaimers;

  • I am not a lawyer, so the following does not constitute legal advice but an academic overview of law as it affects journalists and bloggers.
  • It appears to be almost impossible to avoid bullet points when talking about law. I’ll let you read the new third disclaimer yourself.

Good, hopefully now you won’t sue me for excessive use of bullet points.

Audit

We started off with an ‘audit’ – shared experiences of law on the ‘net. Key points were;

  • The law covers the articles you write and any user-generated content.
  • If the Police tell you something, that doesn’t mean you can print it – you have to have evidence to back up everything you say. Put simply, don’t trust anything anyone says.
  • The WWW is exactly what it says on the tin – a World Wide Web and as such is covered by global law and the phenomenon known as libel tourism.
  • It’s often the easy fish that get caught. We discussed the case of an Indian blogger who was sued because he criticised TV coverage of the Mumbai attacks while the head of the church, who also criticised the coverage, faced no action at all. It seems that newspapers are easy targets because they’re insured and independents are easy targets ’cause it’s too risky for them to fight back so they’ll settle.

We talked about the risks and concluded that there is always some risk, otherwise you would end up publishing very little. It has to be a calculated risk, though. The Times rejected the MPs expenses story after getting the advice of their lawyers. However, the Telegraph obviously went for it. Some lawyers actually don’t mind a fight and you might find you get differing opinions if you consult them.

Then we talked about what exactly defamation is:

  • it lowers people’s opinion of someone
  • it is without justification (i.e. just an insult for the sake of it)
  • it is calculated
  • it causes the victim to be shunned and avoided (y’know, like when someone in the playground has the lurgy)
  • republishing defamation is also defamation

There is a good list of scenarios provided by the Independent Producer Handbook you can look at, too.

Burden of Proof

Next we discussed the burden of proof. This is an important one. Key points are;

  • The burden of proof is on you as the publisher – you have to prove that it’s not defamatory.
  • ‘Truth’ isn’t always a defence – you can’t just publish something and claim it’s fine because it’s fact, you have to support that with evidence.
  • You need to prove it’s true or one of the following (which I’ll go into later);
    • Fair comment
    • Absolute privilege
    • Qualified privilege

So, who can sue?

  • Living people (yep, dead people can’t sue – go figure!)
  • Companies, organisations
  • Groups of people (though it might be hard for a big group like premiership goalies to sue)

…and who can’t?

Note that some are more litigious than others.

Marc Reeves

We also had a visit from Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Post. Marc gave some good insight into how they deal with defamation at the Post. Being part of the Trinity Mirror group means they have a team of lawyers on the end of a phone in head office at Canary Wharf so they can always check first.

Interestingly, when they receive a notice of defamation they will immediately take down the material in question, to be on the safe side. They’ll also make efforts to get the pages removed from Google as that can be a sticking point in libel cases – just being shown to have made the effort is enough.

We also discussed how newspapers are established targets – it’s quite a common occurrence. Marc said they deal with many cases that cost a few hundred to a few thousand pounds. That’s a lot of mullah to be shelling out!

We went on to some specifics of the law;

  • In England, there is a 1 year time limit on bringing a libel action from the date of publication.
  • In Scotland it is 3 years.
  • Each re-publication resets that time-limit back to zero.
  • Each view of a web page is considered a re-publication so even a lawyer checking the page out for a case is causing that material to be re-published again.
  • The need to keep notes was discussed – because libel action could effectively be brought years after publication it’s important that any notes that you have around the published material are kept in case they are important to the case. We discussed the potential for libel ‘holidays’ where people wait for years to bring action in order to increase their chances of winning.
  • There is a Ministry of Justice consultation going on right now on defamation and the internet and it’s available on Write to Reply. Go add your views!

The Defences

Having looked at what is defamatory and who can and can’t sue we discussed the possible defences to a libel action.

Fair comment

  • Is not malicious
  • Is honest & sincere views
  • Based on facts (that are well known or clearly indicated)
  • Matters of public interest (such as what politicians are up to)
  • Saying “it’s just my opinion” is no defence

Qualified privilege

  • Where there is a moral, legal or social duty or a public interest in reporting
  • This refers to reporting the likes of court hearings and council meetings
  • Reporting must be fair and accurate; missing bits out will land you in trouble
  • Whole court hearings must be reported otherwise you could be found in contempt of court

Absolute privilege

  • This refers to the ability to print everything that goes on in a court hearing or in Parliament
  • Even defamatory statements can be published without the re-publication rule applying
  • This supposedly over-rides everything else including injuctions
  • Contempt of court still applies if you don’t present a fair and balanced view of proceedings
  • You must make it clear a case is ongoing and previous articles about a case should really link to one about the outcome

Reynold’s privilege

  • The defence that despite publishing inaccurate accusations it can be acceptable if it was deemed to be responsible journalism
  • It comes from the case of Reynolds vs. Times Newspapers Ltd where the court established the Reynolds factors

Innocent dissemination

  • This is the “I didn’t see it” defence though as soon as notification of libellous content is found, it should be removed otherwise you may be held responsible
  • It’s important to have Terms & Conditions for commenters that hand over the copyright of whatever they right to you so that you may edit/remove their comments
  • If a person has consented to defamatory material about him or her being published, that is an absolute defence – remember to have evidence though!

Developments

We briefly went through the developments around the law, including the defamation and the internet consultation. See Paul’s slideshow (below) for more.

Contempt

Contempt of court is very important. During an ongoing trial you should be careful what you report, here’s some pointers;

  • Don’t mention too many details about those involved (judge may issue a list of things you shouldn’t print)
  • Do not mention previous convictions of accused or their lifestyle as that could prejudice the case
  • It is illegal to ask jurors about the case or take photos of them during the trial or around the courts buildings
  • It’s important to publish dates of follow up hearings, sentencing and the like
  • Don’t even think about printing stuff about under 18s or family proceedings unless specifically given permission by the courts

Privacy

This is very important. Be wary of;

  • revealing private details
  • filming/recording without consent
  • doorstepping (i.e. just knocking on people’s doors without warning)
  • public spaces may be more protected but it’s still best to warn people
  • obtain signed permission slips if you can or recordings of consent
  • low resolution video may offer some protection

As a general rule, just be respectful of people’s privacy and you should be alright.

Confidentiality

Some things will be covered by confidentiality. These could include;

  • Official Secrets Act
  • Data Protection Act
  • Non-Disclosure Agreements

Copyright

  • Don’t quote from anything not in the public domain unless given express permission to do so
  • Make sure you include sufficient acknowledgements to copyright owners
  • Understand Creative Commons
  • Don’t assume you have the right to publish

Regulation

We touched on regulation, too. Check out the NUJ which aims to promote ethical standards in journalism amongst other things, and also the EFF which seeks to defend the rights of bloggers and citizens in the digital world.

That’s it. If I’ve missed anything important, please let me know, and here is Paul’s presentation;

Citizen journalism: Friend or foe to traditional media?

Recently I’ve become involved in a relative new project, The Lichfield Blog. As you may gather from the name it’s a blog, about Lichfield.

I’m really proud to be part of something that has such a switched on and engaged little team behind it.

It was especially gratifying to watch as the story of a fire in one of Lichfield’s pubs quickly made it onto the blog just 3 hours after the initial call to the emergency services. Obviously we were lucky to have one of our team walk past at the right moment with a camera phone – a photo quickly made it’s way on to Twitter and a few tweets later the post was up.

The blog’s creator, Ross, made a call to the fire service about the incident and learned that no-one else had picked up on the story yet. It seemed we had beaten the local media. Having seen other, more high-profile, stories break on Twitter that doesn’t surprise me but it did make me think about all this “newspapers are dead” talk.

The blog has a few hundred visitors now, which is great, but it’s never going to kill the newspapers in Lichfield. I wouldn’t want it to either – there are plenty of people throughout the world, not just in Lichfield, who like to read a paper.

So the question isn’t, “are newspapers going to die?”, but rather “how can newspapers use citizen journalism?”

A good example is the Pancake Race in Lichfield. Nick Brickett has been providing photography for The Lichfield Blog, his first assignment being the traditional Shrove Tuesday Pancake Race. His photos of the event made their way onto the Express & Star web site (ironically, as I write this, said web site is down!)

This could be the way journalism is going. Another great example is Channel 4 News (who my Twitter followers will know full well I admire).

Their coverage of the Schiphol plane crash was very much driven by Twitter. I sat in front of Tweetdeck and watched it all unfold in front of my eyes, from them picking up the story, contacting an eye witness to putting a Twit on the lunch time news. It was a first for them and possibly for journalism in the UK.

Krishnan Guru-Murphy of Channel 4 News says that Twitter is “just another way of finding people and talking“.

I suspect some journalists will treat services like Twitter and citizen journalism in general as a threat rather than an asset. I’ve heard of publications shutting down because they just can’t sustain themselves for much longer (obviously the ‘crunch’ doesn’t help) but instead of shutting down, I believe they should adapt and grow with the times.

And let’s face it, it’s cheaper to do it online!

Do you think the internet is a threat to traditional media, or should traditional media adapt and embrace services like Twitter as sources for news?

Brits Love Blogs

41% of the UK’s internet population have visited a blog, according to comScore.

The study shows that in August, 14.5 million people in the UK visited at least one blog, showing just how popular blogging is becoming.

It demonstrates just how important blogging is to the British internet user. And a reminder to businesses that to market their site effectively, they need to consider the blogosphere as part of their online marketing strategy.

For further on the subject you can view the comScore press release.

Another reason to get on line

Through WebProNews today I learn that on line advertising spend in the UK is now greater than television advertising.

On line advertising spend reached £2.8 billion in 2007, an increase of 40%, with TV advertising registering £2.4 billion. The figures, from the latest annual Ofcom report into the communications industry, show just how important the internet now is to UK commerce.

Interestingly, the report only looks at paid advertising so what the figures don’t show is how much of the marketing budget is devoted to on line marketing. The £2.8 billion only includes paid search, display and classified ads. This means we miss out affiliate marketing, SEO campaigns, blogging and forum marketing and the rest of the on line marketing mix.

It should be obvious, then, that making the internet a significant part of the overall marketing plan is imperative for British enterprises.

Are All PR Professionals Scared of the Web?

For some reason I’m doing a good job of finding opinion pieces preaching to businesses about why they shouldn’t do SEO, PPC, social networking, blogging and so on. Obviously, being an internet consultant that could be bad for business but it’s getting my back up because I can see a common theme running through a lot of these – fear of change.

Fact: the internet is changing the way we all do business. Problem is, people don’t generally like change and this seems to be quite prevalent in traditional marketing circles, where a distinct lack of understanding of the differences in online marketing is manifesting itself into attacks on the worth of online tactics.

Case in point: This afternoon a client sent me a snippet from an innocently title article, Generating press coverage for your accountancy practice, by Tim Prizeman of PR advisors, Kelso Consulting.

Essentially he is suffering from a lack of understanding of the role of blogging in internet marketing. Corporate blogging is an essential part of online PR. In fact PR is a bit misleading in a B2B situation – it should be more like Industry Relations. Corporate blogging allows you not only to talk to your industry (like you do offline through press releases, interviews etc) but to actively participate in industry discussion with both journalists and industry peers (like you would do at an industry conference). It breaks down geographical barriers.

In part of his article, Tim says, “The next time a development arises that effects its readers (eg tax change, VAT tribunal, or you just generally think that people in that industry are missing a particular trick) immediately ring up the journalist and say something along the following lines: “Hello, I’m Mark Tomarket from accountants Tick & Bash. The change in yesterday’s Budget increasing employers’ national insurance could have a dramatic adverse effect on employment in this town because of the large number of retail and other labour intensive industries – is this a story you are interested in covering?”

The beauty of corporate blogging is that you become a semi-journalist. Instead of phoning a journalist you would simply write a brief blog post on your thoughts and because of the nature of blogging, that post would be immediately distributed around the web to all those people who are interested in that topic (ie, your industry peers). The benefit being that it gives your company credibility by showing that you are fully aware of your business environment and the forces affecting your market. That inspires confidence.

It doesn’t take a lot of time like Tim says, either. In ten minutes one can set up a blog, write a post and notify any clients and associates that may be interested creating an instant, targeted (if small) readership.

I’d like to know how Tim came to the conclusion that most have become moribund and why that makes all efforts at corporate blogging worthless. Tim himself admits that “a modest number of these have large and growing followings” which is surely a sign to us all that blogging can work.

I may be reading between the lines too much here but the tone of Tim’s article suggests that in order for a blog to be successful it must have “a large and growing following” but what about the thousands of blogs created by individuals to entertain their groups of friends, colleagues or community groups. Blogs that may only be updated once each month, if that, and only have a small following of twenty or less but are still much loved and cared for areas of the web.

Tim calculates that 179,900 unsuccessful blogs are created each day, adding to the already “71.75m existing little visited ones” again assuming that a less active blog is an unsuccessful blog. The phrase “it’s not the quantity, it’s the quality” comes to mind.

My immediate conclusion is that Tim is suffering from a lack of understanding. He’s never seen successful blogging and so he can’t comprehend it. In all likelihood he’s only ever seen blogging done badly and that’s all he has to go on. Funny enough, one of the most popular blogging efforts on the web today is that of Guardian Unlimited. The online arm of a publication Tim should be very familiar with. Guardian Unlimited in fact won awards for it’s web site and many people are now beginning to turn to media blogs instead of buying newspapers.

My second thought is that Tim is scared. He’s a traditional PR consultant and the internet is becoming more and more powerful. Businesses are switching more of their marketing budgets on line and away from offline marketing because they’re seeing such good returns in comparison. This is obviously affecting Tim’s business and he’s trying to circumvent.

My advice to Tim: Open your mind and realise that blogging is the most prolific form of online PR. Blogging is your cousin and you’d do well to get along or you may find yourself fighting a losing battle.

To the rest of you (accountancy practices included); keep an open mind and never dismiss an idea until you have all the facts. Always take advice about an industry from industry professionals and be mindful of ulterior motives.

If you’re thinking about blogging or internet marketing in general then philipjohn is always available to answer questions without any obligation. Call him on 0844 884 5419 and he’ll help in the best way he can.