Category Archives: citizen journalism

Media law for local government communications officers

By MARK PEARSON

A host of media laws might arise in the work of local government communications and media relations personnel, as I explained to a team from a large council recently.

With councils hosting inquiries and debates among ratepayers on social media platforms, and some even publishing their own news products to supplement a weaker suburban and regional media sector, they are facing many of the same media law risks that journalists encounter in their work.

These include defamation, contempt, breach of confidence, privacy, freedom of information/right to information, intellectual property and discrimination laws among others.

Yet while the news media have been described by some as “not just another business” because of their Fourth Estate role in a democracy, councils are clearly “not just another publisher” because of the special role local government plays in our political system.

A news organ published by the communications department of a local government body faces epistemological questions about their purpose and responsibilities which, in turn, feed into media laws and their defences.

A central question is: “Whose interests should come first, the citizen-ratepayer’s or the council’s?”

The reality is that most topics covered – such as extended library hours and the Carols in the Park coverage – would not trigger a dilemma here.

But push comes to shove when citizens are strongly critical of a council, its officers or its elected representatives over a decision or a proposal.

This is where the editor of any council-owned news organ and the moderator of comments on its social media feed face this fundamental dilemma over who is their real master – which in turn can feed into their position on several media law issues, most notably about whether defamation defences might be defeated by a lack of good faith or a perceived bias.

But there are also fundamental issues over the extent to which councils can shackle both the common law right to free expression and of course the implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government – both clarified in relation to local government bylaws by the High Court in Attorney-General (South Australia) v Corporation of the City of Adelaide (2013) 249 CLR 1.

While that case found Adelaide Council’s restrictions on preaching in Rundle Mall were a reasonable restriction on those freedoms, the decision prompts questions about other restrictions some councils may exercise upon their staff and elected officers.

Some, for example, have banned councilors from speaking publicly against decisions of their councils by narrowly interpreting some provisions of local government acts.

Early in 2017 the Redland City Council in Brisbane was criticized by the Queensland Ombudsman for threatening two citizens with defamation action over alleged defamatory comments about council, council officers and the Mayor, Karen Williams on social media websites. Legal letters from the Council demanded the complainants remove their comments and post apologies. The Ombudsman concluded the threats were not a reasonable or proportional response to what was relatively minor criticism of council’s decisions and were an unreasonable expenditure of public funds. He recommended training for councils in defamation law.

There are many other areas of the law beyond media laws that are likely to impact on local government media relations and communications personnel – both because of their public relations role and because of their function as part of the third tier of government.

These might include contract law, negligence, professional liability, HR law, whistleblower legislation and a host of regulations and common law obligations over transparency in council processes.

The recommendation by Queensland’s Ombudsman that council officers need training in defamation could well be extended to numerous media laws and several other legal and regulatory restrictions.

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

 

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Reporting upon forensic mental health cases and identifying patients

By MARK PEARSON

What are the key policy factors influencing courts and tribunals attempting to balance open justice against other rights and interests in newsworthy cases involving forensic mental health patients? 

Associate Professor Tom Morton from UTS, ABC lawyer Hugh Bennett and I examined this question – and the related issue of whether the media could report upon such cases and identify the patients involved – in our recent article in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our conclusion:

Open justice in mental health proceedings need not be viewed in a vacuum. There are strong parallels with numerous other situations where the legislature and the courts find and apply exceptions to the open justice principle. There is much scope for consistency across Australian jurisdictions and across the many situations where the restrictions are in place because of different vulnerabilities faced by key participants in the court process – mental health patients, children, sexual crime victims, family law parties, protected witnesses and, in two Australian states, even those accused of sexual offences until after the committal stage of proceedings.

There is a strong argument that the courts should be most transparent when the public gaze is so sharply focussed upon them, and that public education about the workings of the justice system in the important area of mental health will be most effective when citizens are intrigued by a particular story and know its background. The courts might acknowledge that in some circumstances a story can be both “interesting to the public” and “in the public interest” – and that perhaps the two notions might not have to be mutually exclusive as Lord Wilberforce so famously suggested.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

We compared four forensic mental health cases in Australia and the UK and highlighted some of the key competing rights and interests at stake when the news media or other parties seek to have mental health proceedings opened and to identify the patients involved. The approaches of the tribunals and courts we  studied showed the competing policy considerations in such applications were by no means clear-cut. They varied markedly from case to case with regards to the potential impact on the patient and other stakeholders and in their respective public interest value in the stories being told to broader communities. Policies around publicity are complicated when expert psychiatric opinion varies on the potential impact on the mental health and treatment regime for the patient.

The weighing of such important rights and interests is not a precise science where a pre-set formula will apply. Of course, important differences between Australian and UK jurisdictions inform such decisions, including different statutory frameworks for the particular tribunals, together with the lack of a formal human rights framework in Australia, comparable with the European Convention on Human Rights, which affords privacy and free expression rights. In Australia, these considerations draw upon the common law, because there is as yet no actionable tort of privacy invasion and free expression is limited to a High Court-designed implied constitutional freedom of communication with respect to “discussion of government and political matters”. Further, the various mental health tribunals dealing with applications from or regarding forensic patients operate within their own statutory frameworks, rules and practice directions which sometimes bind, and in other circumstances guide, their decisions on whether hearings can be held in public and, if so, whether parties and other participants might be identified.

In Australia alone, the nine jurisdictions have taken a variety of approaches to whether such hearings are held in public and whether parties must be anonymised in any reporting permitted. Open justice can be viewed as a policy continuum, ranging from closed hearings and a total ban on reporting at one end through to open hearings with full identification of parties allowed as part of a fair and accurate report of proceedings at the other. Somewhere in between are attempts to strike a balance between open justice and competing rights and interests with partial permissions; where the public or the media might be admitted to proceedings with a range of conditions placed upon the extent of identification of parties or witnesses allowed.

We developed  this list of key policy factors elicited from the cases reviewed, influencing whether a forensic patient or former patient might be given a public hearing or be identified in proceedings:

  1. Specific legislation, regulations, rules and practice directions relating to privacy and anonymity in hearings involving forensic patients or former patients;

  2. Whether there is informed consent from the patient to identification and publicity of his or her case;

  3. The extent to which a public trial and/or identification impacts upon on the life (ECHR Article 2), ill-treatment (ECHR Article 3), liberty (ECHR Article 5), and other rights, dignity and self respect of patients; including the impact of publicity and identification on their mental health and well being, ongoing treatment, safety and ease of re-entry to the community after treatment/rehabilitation;

  4. The impact of a public hearing or identification upon the right to privacy (ECHR Article 8) of the patient and other participants, and the confidentiality of personal medical details;

  5. The historic principle of open justice (ECHR Article 6): fundamental principles of transparency and justice ‘being seen to be done’, as espoused in Scott v. Scott; the public interest in transparency of mental health processes and proceedings;

  6. Freedom of expression and communication (ECHR Article 10); including the freedom of expression of the media, patients and other participants like hospital and prison personnel;

  7. The public’s right to know: public understanding of the mental health system and its treatment of patients; the public interest in knowing the outcome of highly publicised or emblematic cases; the public interest in knowing of wrongdoing in the mental health system; and the public interest in the safety and security of their communities;  

  8. Impact of identification and publicity upon other parties, including hospital staff, other patients, victims and their families;

  9. Public administration costs (economic and organisational) associated with implementing effective systems of publicity and identification. (For example, hospitals’ and courts’ management of media inquiries, extra costs of security for patient, special accommodation for public hearings, expense of installing video links etc);

  10. Stage of the process – for example, publicity and identification might be allowed on early applications related to conditions while institutionalised, but perhaps refused when re-entry to society is imminent or has already passed;

  11. The track record of the applicant media organisation/s in prior coverage and ethical management of privacy and consent issues, in this and perhaps in other comparable cases; the nature of the proposed program or publication and whether it is likely to be of a professional standard, balanced, accurate, reflective of a range of stakeholder views and sensitive to the patient’s experiences; and the context and focus of the identification of the patient in the media output;

  12. Whether a public hearing and/or identification of a patient might risk stigmatising mental illness.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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INFORRM a highly recommended resource for journalists and media law students #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Congratulations to UK-based media law blog INFORRM (INternational Forum for Responsible Media) on reaching an impressive 4 million hits since it started seven years ago.

The site – international but with an understandable UK orientation – boasts more than 5,500 followers including  3,500 on Twitter @inforrm.

INFORRM has just listed its Top Twenty Posts of all time (in descending order of popularity):

From time to time over recent years they have been kind enough to repost my blogs or commentary pieces, including these:

Australia: Whither media reform under Abbott? – Mark Pearson

25 11 2013

Where will the new Liberal-National Coalition government led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott head with the reform of media regulation? Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis were vocal opponents of the former Gillard Government’s proposals to merge press self-regulation with broadcast co-regulation into a new framework.

Read the rest of this entry »

Privacy in Australia – a timeline from colonial capers to racecourse snooping, possum perving and delving drones – Mark Pearson

13 10 2013

Australia MapThe interplay between the Australian media and privacy laws has always been a struggle between free expression and the ordinary citizen’s desire for privacy. I have developed this timeline to illustrate that tension. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Privacy On Parade – Mark Pearson

12 05 2012

The right to privacy is a relatively modern international legal concept. Until the late 19th century gentlemen used the strictly codified practice of the duel to settle their disputes over embarrassing exposés of their private lives.

The first celebrity to convert his personal affront into a legal suit was the author of The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas père, who in 1867 sued a photographer who had attempted to register copyright in some steamy images of Dumas with the ‘Paris Hilton’ of the day – 32-year-old actress Adah Isaacs Menken. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Australia: News Media Council proposal: be careful what you wish for – Mark Pearson

10 03 2012

The Finkelstein (and Ricketson) Independent Media Inquiry report released on 28 February 2012 is a substantial and well researched document with a dangerously flawed core recommendation.

An impressive distillation of legal, philosophical and media scholarship (compulsory reading for journalism students) and worthy recommendations for simpler codes and more sensitivity to the needs of the vulnerable are overshadowed by the proposal that an ‘independent’ News Media Council be established, bankrolled by at least Aus$2 million of government funding annually. Read the rest of this entry »

 

Consumer law holds solution to grossly irresponsible journalism – Mark Pearson

9 11 2011

This post originally appeared on the Australian Journlaw blog.  It suggests an interesting new approach to media regulation which, as far as we know, has not been suggested in debates in this country.  We are reproducing it with permission and thanks to provide a further perspective on those debates.

Australia does not need a media tribunal with regulatory powers to punish ethical transgressions.  It already has one – in the form of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (“ACCC”). Read the rest of this entry »


… as well as occasional snippets in their useful Law and Media Roundup section and this review of my book Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued by media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell:

Book Review: Mark Pearson “Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued” – Leanne O’Donnell

11 04 2012

Professor Mark Pearson’s Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued will be welcomed by anyone writing online … Melbourne media lawyer Leanne O’Donnell reviews this timely legal guide to a rapidly evolving media landscape

Mark Pearson’s new book Blogging & Tweeting Without Getting Sued: A global guide to the law for anyone writing online – is very accessible guide to laws relevant to the all those writing online. Read the rest of this entry »


I find the INFORRM “Blogroll” is a particularly useful resource – regularly updated and featuring these media law blogs from throughout the world. Together they provide a wonderful resource for media law students, journalists and researchers. (Thanks for including journlaw.com,  INFORRM!)

Surely sufficient bedtime reading for even the most avid media law geek!

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Speaking with magistrates about Open Justice #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

New magistrates from throughout Australia met in Brisbane last month for the National Magistrates Orientation Program and I was honoured to join a panel addressing them on open justice.

While magistrates have both legal qualifications and considerable experience, sadly open justice does not figure prominently in the curricular of most law schools so it is heartening to see the organisers of this program giving time to this important legal principle.

My fellow panellists for the session were former Queensland chief magistrate, District Court Judge Brendan Butler (who recounted his experiences with the media in prominent trials and inquests) and the Queensland Supreme and District Courts’ first Principal Information Officer Anne Stanford (@Anne_Stanford) (who explained her role and the interaction between the courts and the media in Queensland and in Victoria where she held a similar position).

I traced the origins and importance of the open justice principle in our legal system, citing English Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger who described it as “a common law principle which stretches back into the common law’s earliest period” – to “time immemorial” – “…older than 6 July 1189, the date of King Richard the First’s accession to the throne” [Neuberger, Lord of Abbotbury (Master of Rolls) 2011, ‘Open justice unbound?’, Judicial Studies Board Annual Lecture, 16 March, < http://netk.net.au/judges/neuberger2.pdf>., p. 2].

Particularly important was the notion that the media should be free to report upon cases and publish the names of parties involved, with minimal exceptions, as recently stated in the UK by Baroness Brenda Hale, new President of the UK Supreme Court:

“The principle of open justice is one of the most precious in our law. It is there to reassure the public and the parties that our courts are indeed doing justice according to law. In fact, there are two aspects to this principle. The first is that justice should be done in open court, so that the people interested in the case, the wider public and the media can know what is going on. … The second is that the names of the people whose cases are being decided, and others involved in the hearing, should be public knowledge. [… limited exceptions].” R (on the application of C) v Secretary of State for Justice [2016] UKSC 2, 1 (per Lady Hale).

I suggested that with diminished resources and finances available to mainstream media in both metropolitan and regional areas, magistrates might be the only people left to speak to the principle of open justice when lawyers and litigants want the court to be closed or names suppressed. Media organisations that might have formerly paid for lawyers to push for the courts to remain open might not be able to afford them, and court reporters might not be available to even report on the particular case being heard.

I attach here my Powerpoint presentation from the session for colleagues and students who might be interested.

MagistratesOrientationBrisbane8-9-17

 

 

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice

By MARK PEARSON

Our article comparing Australian and UK restrictions on the reporting of forensic mental health cases has appeared in the leading journal in the field, the Journal of Media Law.

Citation: Mark Pearson, Tom Morton & Hugh Bennett (2017): ‘Mental health and the media: a comparative case study in open justice’, Journal of Media Law, DOI: 10.1080/17577632.2017.1375261

Here is our abstract:

Media reportage about forensic mental health cases raises several competing rights and interests, including the public interest in open justice; a patient’s right to privacy, treatment and recovery; the public’s right to know about mental health tribunal processes; and victims’ and citizens’ interests in learning the longer term consequences of a publicised serious unlawful act. This article details a case study of successful applications for permission to identify a forensic mental health patient in both a radio documentary and in research blogs and scholarly works in Australia. It compares the authors’ experience in this case with three other cases in Australia and the UK, and identifies and weighs the competing policy issues and principles courts or tribunals consider when attempting to balance open justice with the rights and interests of a range of stakeholders in forensic mental health cases where the news media and/or patients are seeking publicity and/or identification.

Full contents of the edition and subscription details can be seen here.

———–

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Filed under blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, courts, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mental health, open justice, Press freedom, social media, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

Is an Open Justice Advocate the solution to overly restrictive suppression orders? #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Jason Bosland [@JasonBosland] – Deputy Director of the Centre for Media and Communications Law at Melbourne Law School – has called for the introduction of a state-funded Open Justice Advocate as a measure to alleviate the continuing practice of judges issuing overly restrictive suppression orders.

Bosland’s explanatory article in Pursuit and his research article the Sydney Law Review come just as we are about to examine open justice and court restrictions in our Griffith University Media Law course, so they are essential reading for students.

He is the acknowledged leader in the field of suppression order scholarship in Australia and his work tracked firstly the need for the Open Courts Act 2013 in Victoria and, more recently, its failings to impact effectively on court practices.

Bosland writes in the Pursuit article:

This leads to a critical question: who is going to protect the fundamental principle of open justice if the courts themselves are not as vigilant as they should be and if the media are increasingly unable or unwilling to intervene? It is my view that the only solution is for the introduction of a state funded open justice advocate.

His longer Sydney Law Review is an expert combination of insightful policy analysis, meticulous scrutiny of the legislation, and illuminating statistics drawn from his funded research projects on the topic. I commend them to all media law geeks and students.

His concludes that article with this wise counsel:

This state of affairs is clearly unsatisfactory. The solution, however, is not to be found in further legislative reform of the courts’ powers. Rather, attention should be directed towards further professional and judicial education, and the development of a range of suitable model orders. Furthermore, a scheme facilitating the appearance of contradictors in suppression order applications — such as the Open Courts Act Duty Barrister Scheme introduced at the instigation of the Chief Justice — is likely to improve current practices. However, it will only be truly effective in solving the problems identified in the present study if it can be extended to all courts.

Insightful indeed.

[See also – my article in The Conversation on how the 2015 edition of our textbook inadvertently breached a Victorian suppression order and had to be reprinted.]

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2017

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Addressing the Sri Lankan Press Council on media law and mindful journalism

By MARK PEARSON

For the past two weeks I have been in Sri Lanka, where my speaking and interview schedule has been arranged by Dr Sugath Senarath, my co-author of our book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (Shelton Gunaratne, Mark Pearson and Sugath Senarath eds; Routledge, NY, 2015).

srilankawithsugath

Professor Mark Pearson (@journlaw) at the Sri Lanka Press Council event. Photo: Julie Pearson

The highlight was my address to the Sri Lankan Press Council last Wednesday (August 31) on the topic “Designing free expression models in communication with special reference to Commonwealth countries – a mindful Australian perspective”.

I offer the full text of the address to you here. [Please note that sections are excerpted from earlier work, including The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (co-authored with Mark Polden, Allen & Unwin, 2015), Mindful Journalism (reference above) and my unpublished 2013 address to the Timor Leste National Congress for Journalists.]


Press Commissioner, Press Council Chair and board members, co-author and host Dr Sugath Senarath, academic and media colleagues, journalism and media students and young reporters and other honored guests…

Thank you sincerely for having me here today to talk about the important topic of free expression – a fundamental feature in a working democracy.

It is important that all citizens – particularly journalists and politicians – have a grasp of the principles of free expression, media freedom and their historical context.

Origins of free expression

The free expression of certain facts and views has always been a dangerous practice, with countless people put to death for expressing religious or political views throughout history. Many more have been imprisoned, tortured or punished for such expression. Socrates in 399 BCE elected to drink a poison—hemlock—rather than recant his philosophical questioning (Brasch and Ulloth, 1986, p. 9). The history of freedom of expression is as much a history of censorship, because when free expression has been threatened, intellectuals have been called upon to defend it. It was Johann Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in about 1450 and the massive growth in the publishing industry over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in the form of newsbooks and the activities of ‘pamphleteers’ that first triggered repressive laws, and then the movement for press freedom (Feather, 1988: 46). (It is interesting that these individuals were the forerunners of the citizen journalists and bloggers we know today—often highly opinionated and quick to publish speculation and rumour.)

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Delivering the Sri Lankan Press Council address in Colombo. Photo: Julie Pearson

The pamphleteers took umbrage at government attempts to impose a licensing system for printers from the mid-sixteenth century (Overbeck, 2001: 34). Political philosopher and poet John Milton took aim at this in 1644 with Areopagitica, a speech to the parliament appealing for freedom of the presses. He went on to utter the famous free speech principle: ‘Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.’ (Patrides, 1985: 241). Milton inscribed his name on the title page of his unlicensed work, in defiance of the law he was criticising. The notion of free expression had spawned its offspring: press freedom.

Part of Milton’s argument centred on the ‘marketplace of ideas’—the belief that truth will win over falsehood when the two compete. This proposition of a contest between truth and falsehood was often used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to justify freedom of expression (Smith, 1988: 31). It continues in public discourse today.

srilankawithbanner

Two of the co-authors of ‘Mindful Journalism’, Professor Mark Pearson (left) and Dr Sugath Senarath from the University of Colombo.

Philosopher and political theorist John Locke took up the fight after Milton’s death. Under his social contract theory, governments are there to serve the people, and central to this is freedom of expression (Overbeck, 2001: 36).

Like Milton, Locke campaigned for the end of the English printing licence system, which expired in 1694 (Overbeck, 2001: 36). Those to speak out against restrictions on press freedom at the turn of the eighteenth century included novelist and journalist Daniel Defoe, who wrote ‘An Essay Upon the Regulation of the Press’ around 1704 (Brasch and Ulloth, 1986: 62), and John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon who, under the pen name ‘Cato’, wrote a series of letters about freedom in the 1720s (Brasch and Ulloth, 1986: 64–8).

England’s foremost philosopher of the late nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill, articulated the need for free speech in a liberal democratic society in On Liberty, first published in 1859 (Mill, 1991). He wrote:

The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by, when any defence would be necessary of the ‘liberty of the press’ as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determine what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. (1991: 20)

Mill’s On Liberty built on Milton’s ‘marketplace of ideas’ to define the boundaries of freedom of expression in the modern nation-state. One of the great legal minds of the eighteenth century, Sir William Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, had a great impact on the evolution of press freedom by defining it as the absence of ‘previous restraints upon publications’ (Blackstone, 1765–69: 151–2).

Blackstone’s notion of ‘prior restraint’ has underscored the development of media law in the United States. The idea was that freedom of the press could tolerate no restrictions before publication, such as licensing and taxes that had been imposed in Britain, but that the law should take its course after publication to punish those who abused this freedom. Publications should be tax and licence free, but subject to laws like defamation and contempt once published. In both Britain and its colonies, a common weapon for silencing the press had been the crime of ‘seditious libel’—any serious criticism of government or the Crown, whether or not the criticism was truthful. William Murray, Lord Chief Justice and Earl of Mansfield (1704–93), had coined the expression ‘the greater the truth, the greater the libel’ (Whitton, 1998), ensuring that truth would not stand up as a defence to seditious libel.

Despite these restrictions, basic press freedom had taken hold in Britain. Some thought the press had gone too far. In this context, the expression ‘the Fourth Estate’ was coined. At that time, there were said to be three ‘estates of the realm’—the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Lords Common. In 1790, English statesman Edmund Burke is said to have pointed to the press gallery in parliament and said: ‘There are three estates in Parliament but in the reporters’ gallery yonder sits a fourth estate more important far than they all.’ (Inglebart, 1987: 143).

The libertarian ideals on which press freedom is based were not confined to Britain. The movement for civil rights and individual liberties spread throughout Western Europe during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, epitomised by the French Revolution in 1789, leaving a legacy of press freedom throughout that region and its colonial outposts.

In Western democratic societies, journalists often take their liberties for granted. But there has never been utterly unshackled free speech or a completely free media: we operate on an international and historical continuum of free expression through to censorship. It is only over the past half-century that the notion of free expression and a free media has gained traction on a broader international scale.

Free expression internationally

There is no enforceable worldwide agreement on free expression as a fundamental human right, although some nations and regions have entrenched free expression in their constitutions. The key international document is the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in 1948 enshrined free expression at Article 19:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.

At face value, this statement seems to give all the world’s citizens a right to free expression. While a declaration of a lofty goal, it has many limitations, as we will see.

Stronger protections came internationally in 1966 when the United Nations (UN) adopted the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, prompting a series of binding treaties. The covenant introduces a right to free expression for the world’s citizens, again at Article 19.

However, the right is limited because the covenant also recognises duties, responsibilities and restrictions covering respect for the rights and reputations of others, and the protection of national security, public order, public health or morals. Add to this the fact that many countries either have not ratified the covenant, or have not incorporated its provisions to make them part of their domestic law—as in the case of Australia.

At least three major democratic English-speaking nations in addition to the United States have bills of rights enshrining free speech. British and European liberal ideals found their way into the wording of the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, the US Constitution in 1789 and its Bill of Rights in 1791. Central to the Bill of Rights was the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

US government attempts to restrain publications in the national interest have usually failed on First Amendment grounds.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982), like the US First Amendment, recognises freedom of the press as part of section 2(b), which confers upon every citizen the following freedoms: ‘freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication’. The United Kingdom and New Zealand legislation does not mention media freedom, opting instead for the broader term ‘freedom of expression’.

New Zealand’s Bill of Rights, enacted in 1990, states at section 14:Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form’. In 2011, the New Zealand Supreme Court found that the right protected Valerie Morse, an anti-war protester who burned her country’s flag during a dawn memorial service in Wellington. Her conviction for offensive behaviour was set aside.

Despite this, there are many nations with such a free expression clauses in their constitutions where their governments have chosen to ignore them to advance their own interests or to prevent scrutiny of their actions. This has sometimes led to the harassment, assault, imprisonment and even murder of journalists. I note that the Sri Lankan Constitution also enshrines “freedom of speech and expression including publication” and it is encouraging that your new government has taken some first steps towards honouring that right which appears to have been neglected in recent decades. The recent passage of a Right to Information Act is one such encouraging step. Of course, such freedom of information instruments in many countries are ineffective because of the large numbers of exemptions to the release of documents available to governments, the cost of making applications, and the glacial speed with which bureaucracies approve requests for government information – using refusals and appeals to wear down the journalists rightfully seeking facts and information on behalf of the citizenry.

For many truth-seekers and truth-tellers, the commitment to free expression has taken the form of physical injury or danger—even death. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) lists more than 1200 journalists confirmed as killed in the course of their work since 1992, including 27 in 2016 to date. As a former correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, I must highlight the fact that the world is watching the new Sri Lankan government to see how enthusiastically it pursues and prosecutes those responsible for the murder of 19 journalists in this country since 1992 – criminals who it seems have been able to conduct their assassination of this democracy’s messengers with complete impunity. I suggest the Press Council might consider keeping this issue on the agenda in the interests of media freedom and as a tribute to those who have paid the ultimate price for exercising their Constitutional right to free expression.

Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, many others have died, suffered violence or have been imprisoned for what they report. Some have suffered in other ways, as the victims of lawsuits by those who set out to gag them.

Australia

Australia’s early history was marked by considerable censorship of its media, although an early battle between Governor Darling and the Chief Justice in 1827 prevented the licensing of newspapers.

Australia has no equivalent to the US First Amendment enshrining freedom of the press. However, in recent decades the High Court of Australia has recognised an implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government.

Press systems and ethical frameworks are on the agenda in all societies, and we are challenged to accommodate free expression and its close relative, press freedom, within new regulatory, technological and cultural contexts.

Recent inquiries into media regulation in the United Kingdom (Leveson, 2012), Australia (Finkelstein, 2012) and New Zealand (Law Commission, 2013) have recommended major changes to the regulation of media corporations and the ethical practices of journalists. Their motivation stems, at least ostensibly, from public angst—and subsequent political pressure—over a litany of unethical breaches of citizens’ privacy over several years in the United Kingdom, culminating in the News of the World scandal and the subsequent revelations at the Leveson Inquiry (2012), all of which had an undoubted ripple effect in Australia.

Two major inquiries into the Australian news media in 2011 and 2012 prompted a necessary debate over the extent to which rapidly converging and globalised news businesses and platforms might require statutory regulation at a national level. Four regulatory models emerged—a News Media Council backed by recourse to the contempt powers of courts; a super self-regulatory body with legislative incentives to join; a strengthened Australian Press Council policing both print and online media; and a government-appointed Public Interest Media Advocate.

All proposals for any such government intervention with media freedom by such a controlling body by a Press Council or News Council were rejected after considerable pressure from media organisations as anathema to free expression.

Both inquiries acknowledged—and rejected—the notion of a revamped Australian Press Council, proposed in various submissions and in appearances by its then chair. The Australian Press Council was established in 1976 as a newspaper industry ‘self-regulatory’ body—a purely voluntary entity with no powers under law.) Nevertheless, both during and after these two reports, and with new support from most of its members, the Press Council moved quickly to ramp up its purview and powers to address many of its documented shortcomings, such as the refusal of some member newspapers to publish its findings and the threat of withdrawal of funding from others (Simpson, 2012). It locked its members into four-year commitments and established an independent panel to advise on a review of content standards.

At the same time as these changes to media regulation were being proposed, several reformulations of existing media laws were being considered by state, territory and federal governments and their respective law-reform bodies. They covered such topics as privacy law, media classification, intellectual property, cyber-bullying, shield laws and national security laws. Of these, new shield laws have subsequently been introduced in most Australian jurisdictions. Media law and regulation constitute a field subject to continual scrutiny and change, which makes it all the more important for students and professional communicators to keep pace with developments.

It is noteworthy that the self-regulatory institution journal­ists fear most – more than the Press Council and other self-regulation tribunals, is the ABC’s weekly program Media Watch, which was first screened in 1989. Its website promotes it as follows: ‘Everyone loves it until they’re on it’ (www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/). Criticised for being sometimes trite, and often bitchy, Media Watch has exposed some of the nation’s most spectacular ethical breaches over the past two decades. These include blatant instances of plagiarism and privacy invasion and, most famously, an exposé of secret payments being made to talkback radio stars for their endorsement of products and services without the knowledge of their listeners. While Media Watch itself has no sanctions available, the power of the program lies in the fact that ethical breaches and glaring errors are screened on national television, when journalists know their colleagues are watching. The ultimate tool of media self-regulation can indeed be the media itself!

There are several ways journalists in other countries considering regulatory models can learn from this recent experience in Australia.

  1. Comparisons can be dangerous. Even in a democracy with a long history of relatively free expression politicians and governments will seek out and seize any opportunity to regulate the media. International comparisons can be dangerous because we operate within different political and cultural frameworks. When they were arguing for their media reforms, Ministers cited RSF’s World Press Freedom Index, using the argument that Finland remained in number one position there despite having a statutory mechanism for its press regulation. They failed to mention that Finland also has a section in its Constitution guaranteeing free expression and the free flow of information so all laws are formed and applied against that backdrop. It also lacks the hundreds of other media laws that impact on free expression in other countries like Australia.
  2. Beware of regulation creep. Existing laws such as defamation and contempt that apply to all citizens go a long way towards controlling media behavior. I have seen few serious ethical breaches that could not be handled by the existing laws. Once media laws have been introduced it is hard to wind those laws back to re-establish eroded freedoms. Australia passed more than 60 new anti-terror laws after the September 2001 attacks on the US – many impacting on the media – and few of those have been wound back. Media regulation is hard to undo because governments like to have that power.
  3. Don’t trade press freedom. Well meaning journalists and academics are sometimes willing to sacrifice media freedom because of the misbehavior of some media personnel. When you offer governments new powers to control the misbehaviour of some elements in the media you need to accept that those same powers might be used against you at some later stage.
  4. Beware de facto licensing. There is the temptation to issue journalists with accreditation and registration in actual or de facto licensing schemes. While journalists might like the idea of carrying an official card with privileged access, the narrow defining of journalists and journalism by governments presents a real danger to free expression because it privileges some citizens over others as communicators. This gives those issuing and revoking such licenses influence over the message itself. It is even less appropriate in a new era of blogging and social media because the nature of news and journalism is even harder to define. Citizens might become reporters temporarily because of the scale of an event or issue or on an ongoing basis in a narrow field of interest that might momentarily become of broader public interest. It is inappropriate that they should have to seek registration or licensing as a journalist or that they should be punished for reporting without such official licence. Rather, their words or actions should be subject only to the communication limitations placed on all citizens, and in a working democracy they should be limited to only extreme breaches.
  5. Judge a proposed law by its ultimate possible sanction. The best test when trying to gauge the potential impact of new media regulations is not the assurances of their proponents that they will be used only rarely and only in extreme cases, or perhaps not used against journalists. The real test is to look at the ultimate maximum sanctions available and if these involve the potential jailing or fining of journalists then they are anathema to press freedom in a democracy.
  6. Media freedom is above politics. Media regulation was certainly a long overdue debate in Australia, but it was politicised from the outset which undermined the likelihood of the implementation of any of the proposals. Some political parties supported tougher regulation of the media because they had been the target of adverse coverage. A basic human right like free expression should be above politics in a democracy, yet most governments will strive to limit it.
  7. Media freedom is above commercial interest. Opponents of media regulation need to be careful they are not being seen as simply protecting their own commercial enterprises. Criticism of the recommendations by the larger Australian media groups on free expression grounds – particularly by Murdoch executives – were dismissed as a defence of their vested interests (Meade and Canning, 2012). It helps to recruit other senior intellectuals in defence of media freedom – including academics, business leaders and other public intellectuals.
  8. Be wary of ethics codes imposed by governments. Too often governments use ethics codes as a Trojan Horse to push through tougher restrictions on journalists. Ethical codes should be SELF regulatory systems, not legally enforceable instruments carrying potential fines and jail terms.
  9. Training and education in law and ethics is crucial. Media outlets need to be more pro-active in developing better in-house processes for assessing ethical decisions and in explaining those decisions to their audiences. All reforms will, of course, need to be supplemented with better training of journalists about their rights and responsibilities and broader education of ordinary citizens to raise their understanding of the important role of the media in a democracy.
  10. Educate the community about free expression and a free media. The constitutional right to press freedom and free expression need to be part of every school’s civics curriculum and media organisations need to remind their audiences of this constitutional right and its important history at every opportunity.

Mindful Journalism

Just as important as external regulatory and legal systems are the internal processes of journalists’ decision-making – their internal ‘moral compasses’. I have explored this phenomenon in developing the concept of ‘mindful journalism’ with colleagues Shelton Gunaratne and Sugath Senarath in a recent book – Mindful Journalism – published by Routledge in New York last year.

We explore the possibilities of applying some of Buddhism’s core principles to the secular phenomenon of journalism. It must be accepted that Buddhist practices such as ‘mindfulness’ and meditation have been adopted broadly in Western society in recent decades and have been embraced by the cognitive sciences in adapted therapeutic ways (Segal et al 2012).

Each of the constituent steps of the Noble Eightfold Path – understanding free of superstition, kindly and truthful speech, right conduct, doing no harm, perseverance, mindfulness and contemplation – has an application to the modern-day practice of truth-seeking and truth-telling – whether that be by a journalist working in a traditional media context, a citizen journalist or a serious blogger reporting and commenting upon news and current affairs.

We do not propose a definitive fix-all solution to the shortcomings in journalism ethics or their regulation. Rather, ‘mindful journalism’ is an acknowledgment that the basic teachings of one of the world’s major religions can offer guidance in identifying a common – and secular – moral compass that might inform our journalism practice as technology and globalization place our old ethical models under stress. Media coverage can be vastly improved with the application of such principles – working towards a journalism of wisdom and compassion.

One of the problems with emerging citizen journalism and news websites is that their proponents do not necessarily ascribe to traditional journalists’ ethical codes. In a global and multicultural publishing environment the challenge is to develop models that might be embraced more broadly than a particular country’s repackaging of a journalists’ code. However, codes of ethics have often failed to work effectively in guiding the ethics of the traditional journalists for whom they were designed, let alone the litany of new hybrids including citizen journalists, bloggers, and the avid users of other emerging news platforms. Core human moral principles from key classical teachings like the Noble Eightfold Path could form the basis of a more relevant and broadly applicable model for the practice of ‘mindful journalism’.

The recent international inquiries triggered by poor journalism ethical practices have demonstrated that journalism within the libertarian model appears to have lost its moral compass and we need to explore new ways to recapture this. We should educate journalists, serious bloggers and citizen journalists to adopt a mindful approach to their news and commentary accommodating a reflection upon the implications of their truth-seeking and truth-telling as a routine part of the process. They would be prompted to pause and think carefully about the consequences of their reportage and commentary for the stakeholders involved, including their audiences. Truth-seeking and truth-telling would still be the primary goal, but only after gauging the social good that might come from doing so.

Journalists must tell uncomfortable truths for the benefit of society and for the proper functioning of democracies. Politicians particularly need to have thick skins in recognition of the transparency and accountability of the public positions they hold. Before they attack the media they need to reflect upon whether they are acting through craving, attachment or ego.

Even the Buddha allowed for such uncomfortable truths to be spoken. In the Abhaya Sutta, the Buddha addressed Prince Abhaya on the qualities of Right Speech. He related to the prince six criteria for deciding what is worth saying. The third represents how the mindful journalist might approach such criticism of public figures:

[3] “In the case of words that the Tathagata knows to be factual, true, beneficial, but unendearing and disagreeable to others, he has a sense of the proper time for saying them.

Mindful journalists should strive to get their timing correct, but there is no doubt that painful truths sometimes must be spoken. This requires reflection, meditation and insight in the planning and execution of a story to help alleviate suffering. A functioning democracy requires that such unendearing and disagreeable statements sometimes be made about our fellow citizens – particularly those entrusted with the public purse and special powers. It is no less than the role of the Fourth Estate to fulfil this function, and it is heartening to see that Sri Lanka is again investing in the fundamental freedoms that allow journalists to do so. I am sure the Sri Lankan Press Council can play an important role in advocating for press freedom and encouraging a robust journalism of truth, wisdom and compassion.

Thank you.

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Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2016

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