12 Nov 2012

Leveson, BBC crisis and social media: changing journalism?

With the BBC under fire over editorial standards and procedures, Lord Leveson is due to publish his report. Should there be tougher press regulation? And is the law keeping pace with social media?

During a bad week for the BBC, the broadcaster was forced to apologise unreservedly to Tory peer Lord McAlpine for running a story in which, thanks in part to social media, he was wrongly linked to child abuse allegations at a Wrexham children’s home.

In publishing a statement denying the allegations, Lord McAlpine said he was “by no means giving up my right to sue those who have defamed me in the recent past or who may do so in the future and I expressly reserve my rights to take all such steps as I and my solicitors consider necessary to protect my interests”.

Although Newsnight’s report did not name the peer, his statement makes clear that people who had seen internet discussions of the case and who then saw the programme’s report could “reasonably [infer] that the allegation of guilt in those broadcasts and newspapers attached to me”.

Frontier world

It is just the latest example of the frontier world of social media finding itself being picked up by the state sheriff.

But can the law keep up with the countless tweets, blogs, Facebook posts and similar which can seemingly publish allegations and rumour which would land more mainstream outlets with a libel writ?

Speaking to Channel 4 News, lawyer David Allen Green, head of media at Preiskel & Co, who defended tweeter Paul Chambers in the so-called Twitter joke trial case, thinks not: “The law has found it difficult to adjust. Before the internet, access to “publication” of topical information was mainly in the hands of newspapers.

“Now anyone can publish to the world.”

And it is that legal word “publish” that is key. The casual, gossipy nature of blogs, Facebook and Twitter belies the fact that the material they contain is, to all intents and purposes, permanent, usually in the public domain, and therefore open to the same laws which bind outlets such as newspapers and broadcasters.

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For journalists, before potentially contentious reports can be published – i.e. broadcast or printed – they are routinely put before a lawyer who can scrutinise the wording for any meaning, unintended or otherwise, which could land the writer and/or their employer in court.

Broadcasters and others who make their living from writing must get used to the fact that with the power to widely disseminate information comes responsibility, and that defamation and contempt of court laws exist to protect both the writer and anyone who might find themselves the subject of a story.

If that sounds grandiose, just look at what can happen if those laws are broken. In 2002, the Sunday Mirror was fined £75,000 for contempt of court after it published a story which led to the collapse of the trial of Leeds United footballers Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer.

That story alone cost the public purse at least £10m.

People who use social media to chat with strangers and publicise views do not necessarily consider what they do to be subject to the same legal restrictions as the material published by the likes of the Guardian or Channel 4 News – even though, in law, it is.

It is not yet certain that Lord McAlpine will sue those who speculated online about his connection to the Bryn Estyn scandal, but David Allen Green told Channel 4 News that the fact the peer has reserved the right to do so may be a good thing: “One hopes that the example of Lord McAlpine will make people realise that tweeting serious allegations is never to be done lightly.”

Racist comments

Other cases where social media comments have had serious repercussions include tweeters in the US who posted racist comments following the re-election of US President Barack Obama. Online magazine Jezebel contacted colleges in the United States after some of their students tweeted the comments on accounts which publicly declared which school they attend, leading some of them to claim their accounts had been hacked.

The mayor of Ankara, Turkey vowed to take legal action against 600 people who had insulted him on Twitter.

“It’s me who tweets, not someone else in my place and I sue those who insult me,” Melih Gökçek told Hurriyet newspaper.

“There are about 600 people now that I’ve sued. In the beginning we weren’t able to catch them with the speed of social media, but now we can. We caught approximately 80 per cent of those who have insulted me.

“When you give their names and accounts to police, they find themselves in front of prosecutors. But if they apologise publicly, then I say they’re young and forgive them,” he said.

As far as journalists are concerned, David Allen Green thinks that, despite the experience of Newsnight, freedom to report actual wrongdoing is not under threat: “Basic journalism, as well as common sense and decency, requires that adverse stories about other people should stand up factually and be in the public interest. Responsible journalists still have nothing to fear.”


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