Now everyone needs to know media law

There was a time when the only people who needed to know about media law (apart from the lawyers) were reporters and editors. All trainee reporters get sent on courses which teach them about defamation, contempt of court and the sub judice rule; without a sound grasp of the law, journalists leave themselves open to the possibility of lawsuits or even imprisonment.

Today the media landscape is very different, and the explosion of social media means that everyone has to understand the law – not just journalists. After all, ignorance of the law is no defence if you break it.

Journalists are constrained by the law because they publish information to a wide audience. These days, if you have Facebook friends or Twitter followers, then you have an audience too, and the law affects you just as much as it affects the editor of your local newspaper.

Unfortunately, many people using social media are taking a long time to catch on to this fact. Earlier this year Sally Bercow, wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, and comedian Alan Davies both paid damages to Lord McAlpine after they tweeted comments relating to false child sex abuse allegations.

This week police continue to investigate tweets sent by Peaches Geldof, daughter of the former singer Bob Geldof, who named two women in the Ian Watkins child abuse case. A court order was in place granting lifelong anonymity to the women to protect their children, and Geldof could face criminal charges for breaching it.

So if you’re going to use social media, do yourself a favour and take our tips on board:

  • If you publish something potentially damaging about someone, you’d better be able to back up what you say with the facts – otherwise you could be sued for libel (a type of defamation).
  • Fair comment (now called honest comment) is also a defence against being sued – for instance, if you write a fair review of a film, a restaurant or the performance of a footballer.
  • Just because someone else has tweeted it doesn’t mean you can retweet it – re-publishing someone else’s libel is still libel.
  • Prefacing your comments with “allegedly” or claiming that you were “only joking” will not help if you’re faced with a lawsuit.
  • Beware contempt of court: once a person has been arrested or charged with an offence there are strict limits on what anyone can say about criminal cases. You shouldn’t tweet or post on Facebook anything that might prejudice the outcome of a court case.
  • Beware court orders: sometimes, as in the Peaches Geldof case, courts ban the identification of individuals to protect others. Identifying the victims of sexual offences is always against the law.

Probably the best tip of all is one that I was told when I began my career as a rookie reporter: if in doubt, leave it out.