Welcome pack - Law

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Rob Ray's picture
Rob Ray
Joined: 6-11-03
Mar 11 2006 18:41
Welcome pack - Law

For anarchist reporters, the most important media laws are Copyright, Confidence, Contempt, Defamation, Privacy and Reporting Restrictions.

This article will outline some of the aspects you should know, although it can't be comprehensive (McNair and Croner both have regularly updated law books for that):


All British authors have ownership of their own Intellectual Property as they have written it, and this right can be waived to the company which employs them as part of their contract. Effectively this means you are not allowed to simply lift text from a commercial paper and reproduce it, because legally speaking you are stealing their property.

Journalists however have the legal right to reproduce copy under 'Fair Dealing'. If you are reporting current events (for public interest reasons) and accompany quotes saying the author's name and where they wrote it that's fine - though you aren't allowed to use another writer's quotes.

Damages that can be claimed include compensation for how much you should have paid to use the article, plus extra for broken trust, or the claimant can simply take whatever profits you may have made from printing.


Confidential information is supported by the common law 'Breach of Confidence' and the Data Protection Act protects an individual's private information. It is currently very easy to get an injunction against confidential information being published, but Article 10 of the European Law of Human Rights - Freedom of Expression - may overrule this.

People claiming breach of confidence must prove that the information you've written has the necessary quality of confidence (i.e. you received it in private, with no permission given for it to be used), or given in circumstances obliging confidence (i.e. if the person telling you has a non disclosure agreement or similar).

The media however have some rights here. If you publish to 'expose iniquity' (corruption) you are protected. It can be difficult to prove this, so be careful you have evidence or know you can get access to proof if it goes to court. Bear in mind that your source might not wish to give public evidence to back up a statement they've made to you in private.*

Exposés not related to corruption - e.g.. medical malpractice - are covered by public interest, taking into account the seriousness of the allegations, whether it should be published and how likely it is to be true.

*The strictest journalistic creed is to always protect your source, because it's the only way to acquire new ones. Journalists have gone to prison for this ethic.


The Contempt of Court act stops any reporting which might bias the outcome of a court case. Journalists are prohibited from publishing prejudicial information from the time the case becomes 'active'. Cases are active from the moment an arrest warrant, court summons or indictment is issued, or from the time of arrest (without a warrant). It continues until the case has been resolved - bail doesn't count, but if the suspect is released for any other reason it does.

Once a verdict has been handed out, you can say what the hell you like (as long as it isn't defamatory, see below). Before then, restrictions apply:

Any reporting which suggests your paper supports one side over the other (e.g. saying an anarchist is innocent) is contempt. Providing background information about the person other than their name, where they live and anything said in court is contempt. Undermining the status of the court (saying it's a Mickey-mouse court etc.) is contempt.

The seriousness of contempt (and thus your potential sentence) is decided on the type of trial (jury trials are more easily swayed, apparently), the date of the hearing (if your report is six months to a year before the trial it will have less impact), place of trial (a small London-based rag is unlikely to influence jurors in Cornwall), content (was it front page or buried at the back where it may not be noticed?), circulation (the smaller the less impact), anticipating the verdict (speculation is STRICTLY banned), and whether legally privileged information has been published.

If you end up defending yourself against this, you must prove that your report was fair, accurate, in the public interest and you weren't aware that court proceedings were active. It's your responsibility to find out and in general, it's difficult to prove that you had no chance to do so, as the courts/police usually have a phone number you can easily call to check. Fines are extremely hefty, running into hundreds of thousands of pounds, and the reporter/editors can end up in jail if you get it wrong. If in doubt, don't report on it and don't report on the court proceedings themselves unless you know what you are doing.


In journalism we're talking about the recorded word, therefore defamation refers to libel, or the act of publishing a false accusation that hurts someone's reputation. Libel doesn't affect the dead, and only counts if it lowers the victim's reputation in the eyes of 'right thinking members of society'.

This is defined by the court on the day (e.g. Liberace claimed and won in 1959 for being called gay in the Mirror, but he wouldn't win today due to changed attitudes). This means that an article about Kurt Cobain taking drugs gets away with it because 1. It wouldn't hurt his reputation to call him a drug taker, 2. He's dead.

Government institutions can't sue for defamation, but individuals within government can if the department libelled is small enough that they could be personally identified. Businesses can only sue about libels regarding their business or trading reputation, but individuals can sue over malpractice claims.

Defamatory language is decided by the definition of its natural and ordinary meaning, and innuendo and implication - whether people could be expected to read a defamatory message between the lines. You cannot decide what counts as defamatory, and it is your responsibility to prove the claimant wrong if they accuse you.

There are several defences against accusations of libel.

Absolute Justification proves that the article/statement was entirely true. Substantial Justification proves that the 'sting' or general gist of the article was correct, even if some of the facts were not.

Partial Justification proves the most important and damaging fact was true, although others weren't - though this leaves the victim free to sue on any of the unproven libels.

Fair Comment applies when it is an honestly held opinion on a matter of public interest, made without malice.

In practice, if you are writing for an anarchist paper you are unlikely to win on this basis, but if you can prove you were telling what you thought was the truth based on the facts you had, in a fair-minded way (based on whether another fair-minded person could be expected to say the same given similar circumstances) on a matter of public interest, it is a usable defence.

Absolute Privilege applies when the statement reported was a direct quote of what was said in a parliamentary proceeding, court proceeding or other privileged situations such as official documents, lawyer/client communications and ombudsman's reports.

If exactly the same quote is repeated outside these situations however, it only counts as Qualified Privilege, which means you have to provide the accused with a right to reply and be free of any malicious intent in your reporting, as well as showing that you reported it in the public interest.

If you try and fail to prove your defence, the damages awarded against you will be vastly higher. You can lower the level of the damages claim by ofering an apology and a prominent retraction in the offending publication before it goes to trial.

Defendants in a libel case include everyone from reporter to publisher to the shop who sold the offending literature. Payouts are limited only by the judge's discretion and have been known to bankrupt even relatively large publishing houses.


There is no specific law of privacy, but you aren't allowed on private property (trespass). Defamatory photos are fine as long as the position is clarified within the accompanying article.

Douglas V Hello however, along with the Naomi Campbell case, have both threatened to use EU law (Article 8, privacy) to bring in a UK privacy law 'by the back door'. This hasn't as yet happened, but it's a case of judges putting the problem off, not solving it.

Privacy ethics in the publishing community - so the very least you can get away with - are laid out in the Press Complaints Commission's code of practice. They aren't as yet law, but continued breaches of the code will contribute to a specific law being brought in future so they are worth a read.

Reporting Restrictions

National security and justice matters held behind closed doors (in camera) both have total automatic restrictions. Other areas with specific automatic restrictions include sex cases, juveniles before trial, magistrate's court committal proceedings and divorce cases.

Unless you have taken NCTJ law, or are working with a senior journalist, please don't report on any of these as an untutored journalist. It would be impossible to inform you of all the pitfalls in a single feature.

There are a myriad of other common and statute laws (the difference being that common law came from way back and is upheld as 'wisdom' from our forebears, statute law is specifically made by parliament to deal with new/changing situations). If possible, get hold of a decent media law book and keep it with you.

Rob Ray's picture
Rob Ray
Joined: 6-11-03
May 23 2013 10:47


Steven.'s picture
Joined: 27-06-06
May 23 2013 18:43

If a spammer bumped this, that would actually be quite handy as I didn't see this before and this would be good in our independent media guide.

Would you be able to add a quick paragraph about use of photos perhaps? Especially in the light of recent developments… Then we can pop it in the organise section?

Joined: 27-05-13
May 27 2013 07:30

Intellectual property is theft! - I wrote an article by that title in the August 2012 edition of Freedom. Basically, copyrights are government-granted monopolies that end up redistributing wealth upwards, and for that reason I think they should be opposed.