Category Archives: journalism

Submission to Public Interest Journalism Committee calls for new defence to gag laws

By MARK PEARSON

My submission to an Australian parliamentary committee examining the future of journalism proposes a new defence to give genuine public interest journalism a market advantage over fake news, celebrity gossip and other unethical infotainment products.

The Australian Senate established the Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism – known as the ‘Public Interest Journalism Committee’- on May 10, 2017. The committee is  inquiring into the future of public interest journalism.

The closing date for submissions is June 15, although the committee’s site explains that late submissions will be considered.

Here is my submission.


I hereby offer my personal submission to your committee’s important inquiry into the future of public interest journalism.

My research and expertise includes media and social media law, ethics and regulation. I am lead author of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law[i], now in its fifth edition, and have been author or editor of numerous other books and scholarly articles and research projects intersecting with your broad terms of reference. My current position is as Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University as a member of both the Law Futures Centre and the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. However, this submission represents my own opinions and does not purport to represent the views of my university or of those research centres.

While I have views on several aspects of your inquiry I will restrict this submission to a proposal to amend the media laws and regulations within the direct or indirect control of the Commonwealth Parliament which serve to shackle the enterprise of ‘public interest journalism’ in Australia and ineffectively distinguish it from ‘fake news’[ii] and other misleading, deceptive and sometimes harmful communication products. In summary, I propose that in light of the lack of constitutional protections for public interest journalism in Australia, the Commonwealth should build into every identified restriction on media freedom a “public interest journalism” defence, which would excuse a “legitimate and demonstrated public interest in freedom to communicate on this occasion”, where the court would take evidence on the importance of the matter of public concern, the publisher’s genuine track record of adherence to professional ethical standards, its resolve to remedy past breaches (if any), and its commitment to train their staff in legal and ethical issues. It should encourage other Australian jurisdictions to take a uniform approach.

Legal impediments to public interest journalism

Free expression and a free media should be foundational principles in any democratic society, and the principle of open justice should be equally foundational to any country with respect for the rule of law. Each is enshrined in its own way in international human rights instruments.[iii] Almost all democratic nations other than Australia include a right to free expression or a free media in their Constitutions or ancillary documents. However, the closest Australia has to any such constitutional recognition is the High Court’s so-called implied freedom to communicate on matters of politics and government, which has evolved in a qualified fashion through a series of cases since the 1990s.[iv] The proof of the inadequacy of the principles of media freedom and open justice in Australia can be found in the exceptions to those liberties in a litany of laws across Australia’s nine jurisdictions which serve to impede attempts at public interest journalism. They are evident in both the common law and in legislation in areas including (but not limited to) defamation (despite purported uniformity), contempt, trespass, surveillance, confidentiality, privacy, source protection, court and tribunal suppressions and identification restrictions, along with a host of national security and anti-terror laws.

Even measures designed to allow greater freedoms to those engaged in public interest journalism suffer from jurisdictional inconsistency, with significant differences apparent in whistleblower protections, journalists’ shield laws and the courts’ tolerance of journalists’ use of new communication technologies. Some, like freedom of information laws, have been abused and eroded by your colleagues across the political spectrum as they have exploited the numerous exemptions to their own protection and advantage, prompting cynics to call them ‘freedom from information’ laws. As former foreign minister Alexander Downer once told newspaper publishers: ‘Freedom of information always seems a great idea when you are in Opposition but less so when you are in Government’.[v]

This leaves public interest journalism battling this array of laws at State, Territory and Commonwealth levels limiting free expression and a free media because of competing rights and interests – often without free expression or a free media being acknowledged in the wording of certain statutes or in their interpretation in cases. The Senate must bear the responsibility for passing some of these laws and the various attorneys-general across jurisdictions and political affiliations must accept culpability for failing to work to ensure their uniformity.

Exceptions and journalist/news media privileges

There a few privileges, exemptions or defences available to journalists and news organisations, which vary markedly in their wording, including:

  1. The Privacy Act, which at s7B(4) which exempts ‘media organisations’ which are ‘publicly committed’ to privacy standards published by themselves or their representative organization;
  2. The Australian Consumer Law (detailed at Schedule 2 to the Competition and Consumer Act 2010), which offers a broad ‘media safe harbour’ (Section 19) to ‘information providers’ under the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions (Section 18).
  3. Shield laws, which at Commonwealth level offer a discretion to the courts to excuse a journalist from revealing a source, in consideration of “the public interest in the communication of facts and opinion to the public by the news media”[vi];
  4. Metadata retention laws, which offer a limited and opaque protection to professional journalists under protocols detailed at Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act 1979 at Division 4C. The protocols were famously breached in 2017 when the AFP admitted a journalist’s call records had been accessed without following the procedures.[vii]
  5. A fair dealing defence for the purpose of news under the Copyright Act, itself subject to a judicially determined reasonableness test.[viii]
  6. Uniform state and territory defamation laws, which make available a qualified privilege ‘public interest’ defence;[ix]
  7. A common law ‘public interest’ defence to sub judice contempt (known as the ‘Bread Manufacturers’ defence);[x]
  8. A range of other limited exemptions available in journalistic or public interest grounds (sometimes at the discretion of the court) in various jurisdictions including the use of recording devices in court, contacting jurors, publishing secretly recorded conversations, reporting upon closed court cases, interviewing prisoners or parolees, identifying sexual assault victims with their permission, etc.[xi]

While such limited exemptions offer some acknowledgement of the importance of public interest journalism, free expression and open justice, their wording is ad hoc and their application across jurisdictions is unpredictable. This is farcical in an era of global publication to 24/7 deadlines by a large variety of organisations and individuals engaged in public interest journalism in its multiple forms – many of whom might not even call themselves ‘journalists’ in a traditional sense of the term, but who might nevertheless be engaging in the practice[xii].

Some statutes offer blanket exemptions which in some ways encourage the creation and republication of fake news, celebrity gossip and click bait misinformation. The Australian Consumer Law is a prime example, where the ‘media safe harbour’ (Section 19) offered to ‘information providers’ under the ‘misleading and deceptive conduct’ provisions (Section 18) allows news organisations have a blanket, almost unchallengeable protection for misleading and deceptive conduct. I proposed to the Independent Media Inquiry in 2011 that there should be a rebuttable presumption that corporations publish responsible news and current affairs material of legitimate public interest in accordance with a journalism code of practice to earn this exemption[xiii].

A ‘public interest journalism’ exemption or defence

A simple and effective measure to reduce this imposition on public interest journalism would be for the Senate to require all Commonwealth legislation imposing a demonstrable limitation upon the enterprise of public interest journalism to include a ‘public interest journalism’ exemption or defence. This would confer a discretion to a court to make an exception to the operation of the particular measure in instances where there may be a public interest in the communication of a matter of genuine public concern which at least balances, or perhaps outweighs, other rights and interests in the particular circumstances.

The current exemptions within the control of the Commonwealth (privacy law, consumer law, shield laws, etc) would be simplified where possible to meet such a test. In some cases this would require those exempted under current legislation to do more to demonstrate they are worthy of such an exemption (under the Privacy Act s7B(4), for example, ‘media organisations’ are automatically exempted if they are ‘publicly committed’ to privacy standards published by themselves or their representative organization.) In other cases the existing laws should be broadened to the advantage of others who demonstrably engage in public interest journalism. (For example, academics, non-government organisations, journalism students and serious bloggers might then qualify for shield laws which at Commonwealth level are currently restricted to “journalists” being people “engaged and active in the publication of news”.[xiv] This would attach the exemptions to those engaging in the enterprise of ‘public interest journalism’ instead of trying to define who might qualify as a ‘journalist’ in the modern era).

I have deliberately not ventured into the wording of any such defence or exemption because that is not my area of expertise and the particularities of the restrictions will inevitably require slightly different wording in each situation. While its definition of ‘journalist’ at s 126K should be broadened, the Evidence Act 1995 s. 126K (2) is a useful starting point where it states:

(2)  The court may, on the application of a party, order that subsection (1) is not to apply if it is satisfied that, having regard to the issues to be determined in that proceeding, the public interest in the disclosure of evidence of the identity of the informant outweighs:

(a)  any likely adverse effect of the disclosure on the informant or any other person; and

(b)  the public interest in the communication of facts and opinion to the public by the news media and, accordingly also, in the ability of the news media to access sources of facts.

(3)  An order under subsection (2) may be made subject to such terms and conditions (if any) as the court thinks fit.

The uniform Defamation Act[xv] offers guidance within its qualified privilege defence to the kinds of factors a judicial decision maker might take into account when deciding whether or not to allow such a public journalism exemption:

(3) In determining for the purposes of subsection (1) whether the conduct of the defendant in publishing matter about a person is reasonable in the circumstances, a court may take into account:

(a) the extent to which the matter published is of public interest, and

(b) the extent to which the matter published relates to the performance of the public functions or activities of the person, and

(c) the seriousness of any defamatory imputation carried by the matter published, and

(d) the extent to which the matter published distinguishes between suspicions, allegations and proven facts, and

(e) whether it was in the public interest in the circumstances for the matter published to be published expeditiously, and

(f) the nature of the business environment in which the defendant operates, and

(g) the sources of the information in the matter published and the integrity of those sources, and

(h) whether the matter published contained the substance of the person’s side of the story and, if not, whether a reasonable attempt was made by the defendant to obtain and publish a response from the person, and

(i) any other steps taken to verify the information in the matter published, and

(j) any other circumstances that the court considers relevant.

Such other circumstances could include the legal and ethical track records of the individuals and organizations seeking the exemption and their demonstrable commitment to legal and ethical standards and training.

If the Commonwealth takes the leadership in such a simplification of the approach to a ‘public interest journalism’ exemption, then I am confident it can impose its considerable weight upon the states and territories via the Law, Crime and Community Safety Council and the Council of Australian Governments to mirror this approach in their myriad of publishing restrictions. Such a measure would help foster a real backbone of encouragement of genuine public interest journalism – whether created by large traditional media, freelancers, activists or new media entrepreneurs – in the absence of a constitutional right to free expression and a free media enshrined in a Bill of Rights, which appears to be an unrealistic aspiration at this stage. It would also offer genuine public interest journalism a market advantage over fake news, celebrity gossip and other unethical infotainment products.

I sincerely hope your committee is able to improve the standing of public interest journalism and wish you well in your deliberations.

Notes:

[i] Pearson, Mark and Mark Polden (2015). The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.

[ii] Please note that some parts of this submission are explained further in my recent article in the journal Asia Pacific Media Educator’. Pearson, Mark (2017) ‘Teaching media law in a post-truth context – strategies for enhancing learning about the legal risks of fake news and alternative facts’ Asia Pacific Media Educator, 27(1) 1–10.

[iii] See, for example, Articles 11 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[iv] See: Australian Capital Television Pty Ltd v Commonwealth (1992) 177 CLR 106; Stephens v West Australian Newspapers Ltd (1994) 182 CLR 211, Lange v. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1997) 189 CLR 520; Wotton v Qld [2012] HCA 2.

 

[v] McNicoll, D. D. (2006, 31 August). The diary. The Australian [Media section]. p. 18.

[vi] Evidence Act 1995, s. 126K.

[vii] Royes, Luke (2017) AFP officer accessed journalist’s call records in metadata breach. ABC News online. Available: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-28/afp-officer-accessed-journalists-call-records-in-metadata-breach/8480804

[viii] Copyright Act 1968 ss40 and 103B.

[ix] See Defamation Act NSW 2005 s. 30.

[x] Pearson & Polden, op. cit., p. 147.

[xi] See Pearson & Polden, op. cit., Chapter 6, ‘Covering Court’

[xii] See Slater v Blomfield [2014] NZHC 2221, at paras 47-55.

[xiii] Pearson, Mark. (2011). ‘Consumer law holds solution to grossly irresponsible journalism’. Journlaw blog. Available: https://journlaw.com/2011/11/07/consumer-law-holds-solution-to-grossly-irresponsible-journalism/

 

[xiv] Evidence Act 1995 ss. 126J and 126K

[xv] See Defamation Act NSW 2005 s. 30.

 

———–

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

Leave a comment

Filed under free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, Media regulation, Uncategorized

Fake news prompts a mindful approach to teaching media law in a ‘post-truth’ context – #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

My article ‘Teaching media law in a ‘post truth context’ has just been published in the Sage journal Asia Pacific Media Educator, edited by Professor Stephen Tanner from the University of Wollongong.

Much has been written about the ethics of so-called ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative’ facts in a ‘post-truth’ era, but few have explored the legal implications of these and the flow-on to education in media law.

This article suggests there are clear legal risks for journalists adopting the hallmark practices of ‘fake news’ – particularly in linking identifiable individuals to reputationally damaging falsities (defamation) and in making misleading or deceptive claims in the course of business (consumer law).

Whether or not such an ethically dubious practice is actionable will depend on a host of factors including the strength of publishing defences, the availability of legal advice, and the jurisdictional reach of any legal suit.

This article suggests a problem-based approach – including recent examples and classical media law principles – might encourage a ‘mindful’ (reflective) practice when assessing media law risks in the news room.

When a graduate makes the news for a serious legal error – as one Yahoo!7 journalist did in Australia in 2016 (DPP v Johnson & Yahoo!7 [2016] VSC 699 (28 November 2016) ) – journalism educators are deceiving themselves if they think such a fate might not await their own graduates.

If we accept there is no guarantee our students will retain the key knowledge they need in an important area like media law, we need to at least ensure they are equipped with the requisite skills to pause and reflect in the midst of their news reporting and production to assess their capacity for reporting a particular story or addressing a legal or ethical dilemma.

We have developed and refined one approach to achieving this over recent years which we have called ‘mindful journalism’. I’ve  written a short account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. 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)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

The Asia Pacific Media Educator article explains that in applying the mindful journalism approach to media law, students are taught to work through an eight-point checklist to self-assess their capacity for dealing with an ethical or legal dilemma. When applied to the proposed construction and/or publication of ‘fake news’, the eight points of questioning and reflection might appear as follows:

Understanding – What is my understanding of the media laws relevant to this situation? What are the legal implications of publishing something false – even the false words or constructions of others? What are the risks of publishing something true, which might still be in breach of a law (for example, in breach of a suppression order or in breach of sub judice contempt rules)?

Intent – Why do I even want to report this story? What public interest does it serve? What am I intending to achieve by my involvement in its production?

Livelihood – Am I in the right occupation here? Where does the task I am approaching (‘fake news’) sit within my career definition?

Speech – What is the factual basis to the words I am selecting and how are they best selected and crafted to demonstrate truth, accuracy and good faith? Whose voices are in my story and is there a sufficient range of voices and perspective to earn the relevant defences? What needs to be said that is not being said in this story, contributing to falsities, misunderstandings, or imputations about others?

Actions – What aspects of my behavior in this reporting and publishing sit within the bounds of the law and the defences to which I aspire? How do I manage the fact-checking of the words others are saying here and how do I explain any falsities to my audience? Can the publication of my story be delayed until I can substantiate any claims with further evidence?

Effort – To what extent am I trying to follow both the letter and spirit of the law in the pursuit of this story? How hard have I worked to gather evidence to prove the truth of the facts in my story, and to give all key stakeholders the opportunity to speak and respond?

Mindfulness – What techniques of self-reflection and micro-meditation upon media law risks and approaches have I learned and implemented? What time have I devoted to working through each of the other factors here and in applying them to my situation at hand?

Concentration – How accomplished is my concentration upon the multiplicity of legal dimensions to the story in focus? How well have I focused upon each of them and worked systematically through its elements and the extent to which I have addressed them?

Interested? Please go to the Sage site to access the full article.

If you are interested in reading more about my application of mindful journalism to media law and ethics, please see my treatment of its relationship to defamation in the International Communication Gazette in my article titled ‘Enlightening communication analysis in Asia-Pacific: Media studies, ethics and law using a Buddhist perspective’. Its abstract and link to the full article is available here. See also the mindful approach to navigating mental health reporting restrictions I used with colleague Tom Morton, reported in the Pacific Journalism Review article “Zones of Silence”, accessible 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

Leave a comment

Filed under Buddhism, contempt of court, defamation, Eightfold Path, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, mindful journalism, Uncategorized

Mindful journalism explained in Q&A style

By MARK PEARSON

It is heartening to see fellow journalism academics taking an interest in ‘mindful journalism’ – an important area of my research over recent years.

I was honored to be interviewed on the topic by lecturer in journalism and electronic media from the University of Tennessee, Melanie Faizer, and she kindly allowed me to record the interview to screen via this blog.

So here it is for those of you interested in mindful journalism as I see it a few years into my journey…

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)  explored the possibilities of applying mindfulness techniques to journalism practice.

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 3.08.59 pmI  recently wrote an article on the “Right Speech” aspect of mindful journalism for the International Communication Gazette titled ‘Enlightening communication analysis in Asia-Pacific: Media studies, ethics and law using a Buddhist perspective’. Its abstract and link to the full article is available here.

The article backgrounds important critiques of the Western approach to communication  studies, and considers how globalized communication and media studies has become, before exemplifying how a secular Buddhist perspective might offer 2,500 year-old analytical tools that can assist with media analysis, law and ethics.

I’ve also written a shorter account of the basic principles of mindful journalism in the journal Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, and the editors have been kind enough to make that article available for free viewing as a feature item on their website here. You might also want to explore some of their other fascinating articles on media ethics here and perhaps subscribe.

———–

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

Leave a comment

Filed under blogging, Buddhism, Eightfold Path, free expression, journalism, media ethics, mental health, mindful journalism, social media

Alternative media values offer hope in a ‘post-truth’ media world, says journalism academic

By MARK PEARSON

Alternative and community media offer a vehicle to combat the forces of ‘fake news’ in the so-called ‘post-truth’ era, Griffith University’s Associate Professor Susan Forde suggested in the 2017 Arts Education Law Professorial Lecture in Brisbane tonight (May 16).

Associate Professor Susan Forde delivers the 2017 AEL Professorial Lecture

The director of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research told her South Bank audience it was a tall order to expect the “somewhat diminished media sector” to shoulder the burden in a “neo-liberal era that has fairly successfully marginalized social democratic views of the world”.

She pointed to independent media operating on alternative funding models such as the Guardian, the New Daily, Crikey, the Monthly and New Matilda as a foundation for a “healthy and diverse media landscape”.

“In an advanced democracy, we do have structures which can support financial contributions to media organisations without threatening their independence and autonomy,” Dr Forde said.

“When we can deliver this – a much larger public and community-based media sector that is well supported – we will find it much easier to marginalise lound and deceitful voices.”

She was addressing the topic “The Media in Dangerous Times”, suggesting the traditional role of the Fourth Estate as an effective watchdog on power had been significantly challenged by a range of forces over the past decade.

“We’ve witnessed the rise of far-right political movements based on racism and identity politics and not much else,” she said.

“The media has been complicit in their rise. These two issues are tied together by a third factor and that is the successful marginalizing of thoughtful, informed and progressive views as political correctness and propaganda from a media elite.”

The decline in traditional media revenue streams at the expense of international new media platforms like Google and Facebook had prompted the removal of more than a quarter of Australia’s journalism workforce over the past six years – and the price that has been paid has been quality journalism.

But the answer for journalism was not to place faith in cost cutting and new technologies, but rather in content reflecting “a particular set of professional commitments and traits”.

Alternative media journalists were driven by such values, Dr Forde contended.

“They are driven to provide information to their audiences which will overtly encourage them to take part in democracy – to participate, to do something,”she said.

“They provide what we call mobilizing information.”

———–

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

Leave a comment

Filed under free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, Media regulation, Uncategorized

Press Council launches Reconciliation Action Plan and welcomes Koori Mail to fold

By MARK PEARSON

The Australian Press Council has launched its first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) and welcomed the first indigenous newspaper, the Koori Mail, to its membership after a symbolic ceremony at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence in Redfern, Sydney.

Journalist and Reconciliation Australia board member Kirstie Parker launches the Reconciliation Action Plan as APC Chair David Weisbrot looks on.

The Reconciliation Action Plan documents the objectives and strategies the press self-regulator vows to employ over the next two years to promote understanding and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Launching the plan was former journalist Kirstie Parker – a Yuwallarai woman from NSW, board member of Reconciliation Australia and former editor of the Koori Mail (@koorimailnews).

She is now CEO of the National Centre of Indigenous Excellence (NCIE).

She congratulated the Press Council on its Reconciliation Action Plan.

“You have grasped that Aboriginal representation in media extends beyond media outlets to representation on the adjudicatory body, the Australian Press Council,” she said.

She noted the Council had recognized “the importance of Aboriginal voices in media; of managers, editors, producers, journalists framing our stories our way.”

“I cannot emphasise enough the importance of Aboriginal representation in media has been high on our agenda since the 1970s when the first community controlled Aboriginal media outlets formed,” Ms Parker said.

“That the Koori Mail – the most respected and successful Aboriginal newspaper in Australia – is now the first black media member of the APC is no accident. Media outlets come and go, I don’t have to tell you it’s a cutthroat and ever-shrinking business.”

“The Koori Mail’s longevity is a result of strong leadership, in strong roots, with a strong sense of purpose and a strong commitment to our stories and our culture.

“The paper has never given up on that and you have a lot to learn from them, your newest member.”

The Press Council’s draft RAP was endorsed after review by Reconciliation Australia.

The Chair of the Press Council, Professor David Weisbrot, explained the challenge was to implement the plans ‘fully and effectively’.

The Press Council’s RAP commits the organisation to:

•   encouraging membership by Indigenous newspapers, magazines and online news and current affairs sites;

•   engaging and consulting with Indigenous groups, individuals and organisations regarding the Press Council’s work;

•   promoting employment and internship opportunities for Indigenous people at the Press Council and among member publications;

•   promoting Indigenous cultural competence among staff;

•   considering the impact on Indigenous peoples of current and proposed Standards of Practice;

•   encouraging the Australian news media to report issues of importance for Indigenous communities in a respectful way; and

•   endeavouring to promote high quality reporting in relation to Indigenous peoples.

The Australian Press Council was established in 1976 and is responsible for promoting good standards of media practice, community access to information of public interest, and freedom of expression through the media. Press Council membership encompasses over 900 mastheads, accounting for approximately 95 per cent of newspaper, magazine and online readership in Australia.

Read the Press Council’s Reconciliation Action Plan here.

[I attended the ceremony as a member of the Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research which has a strong record of research into indigenous media.]

———–

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

1 Comment

Filed under free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, 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

1 Comment

Filed under blogging, citizen journalism, contempt of court, free expression, journalism, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, social media, sub judice

Lessons for us all in $300k Yahoo!7 fine for contempt [updated]

By MARK PEARSON

Most Australian followers of this blog will have seen in the news that Yahoo!7 has been fined $300,000 for sub judice contempt over a publication which triggered the discharge of a jury in a Victorian murder trial.

The relatively inexperienced online journalist who wrote and uploaded the story to the organisation’s news site (without attending the court case on which she was reporting) escaped with a two year good behaviour bond, but Supreme Court Justice John Dixon noted the impact upon her of the media coverage and public shaming.

The main problem with her story was that it included excerpts from the victim’s social media accounts indicating the accused had a history of violence towards her and that she feared for her life – prejudicial evidence of which the jury was unaware.

This was enough for Dixon J. to rule:

“I find that the conduct of the respondents in publishing the article during the trial of an accused on a murder charge was conduct in contempt of court. I am satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the publication, objectively and as a matter of practical reality, had a real and definite tendency to prejudice the trial of the accused.” (2016 judgment, para 3).

As university classes resume for the new academic year, it is timely to consider the lessons of the sorry episode for journalists and journalism students, educators and media organisations.

The two judgments – the conviction in 2016 and the sentencing in 2017 – deserve careful examination by all. Here are the take-home messages for us all:

Journalists and Journalism students

According to her LinkedIn page, the journalist was a graduate of a one year broadcast journalism program in 2013 and had since worked at modeling, sales, and internships as a television producer before gaining her position with Yahoo!7 as morning news producer in June 2015, just over a year prior to the offending story.

No doubt some basics of media law would have been covered in that institution’s media law course as they are in tertiary journalism programs throughout Australia. However, just because a student passes a media law subject with a mark of more than 50% does not mean he or she has learned and remembered every key topic covered.

If you are a student about to embark on a media law course you must realize that the consequences for failing to remember and apply the key elements of media law in your workplace can cost you your professional reputation, many times your annual salary in fines or damages awards, and even your liberty in the form of a jail term.

This means media law is way too important to undertake with that common student approach of “passes build degrees”. You need to read your textbooks and assigned readings, review them, view and engage in other recommended learning materials and tools, grapple with learning problems – and set your mind to keep up to date with developments in each of the media law topic areas. In other words, you need to make media law your passion and hobby if you are to have a good chance of staying out of trouble with the law.

That goes for working journalists as well as students. My experience in training working journalists is that most have forgotten the basic principles of defamation and contempt they learned at university or in training courses many years prior.

As for content, the key lesson from this case is that while a criminal trial is pending or in progress you should only report what has been stated in court in the presence of the jury. Dixon J. summed up the basic principles of sub judice contempt particularly well at para 24 of the 2016 trial:

(a) All contempt of court proceedings involve circumstances where there has been an interference with the due administration of justice;

(b) The law is concerned with the tendency of the matter published in the risk created by its publication.[3] It is unnecessary to prove that a juror or potential juror actually read or heard the prejudicial material;[4]

(c) The test for liability for sub judice contempt is whether the published material has, as a matter of practical reality, a real and definite tendency to prejudice or embarrass particular legal proceedings or interfere with the due administration of justice in the particular proceeding;[5]

(d) The tendency is to be ‘determined objectively by reference to the nature of the publication and it is not relevant for this purpose to determine what the actual effect of the publication on the proceedings has been or what it probably will be. If the publication is of a character which might have an effect upon the proceedings, it will have the necessary tendency, unless the possibility of interference is so remote or theoretical that the de minimis principle should be applied’;[6]

(e) The tendency is to be determined at the time of the publication;[7]

(f) Publication on the internet occurs when the material is uploaded onto the internet;[8]

(g) Proof of an intention of the contemnor to interfere with or obstruct the administration of justice is not a necessary element to be proved;[9]

(h) It is not relevant to consider the actual effect of the publication. Regard is had to the nature and content of the publication and to the circumstances in which it occurred;[10]

(i) Publishing or broadcasting material that is inadmissible before a jury may have the necessary tendency to prejudice an accused’s right to a fair trial;[11]

(j) It is an elementary principle in the administration of criminal justice that, apart from exceptional cases, usually defined by statute, the bad character or prior convictions of an accused cannot be put before the jury on a trial;[12]

(k) The law sets its face against trial by prejudice and innuendo. The principle that the prosecution may not adduce evidence, tending to show that an accused person has been guilty of other criminal acts or has a propensity to violent behaviour, for the purpose of leading to the conclusion that he is a person likely to have committed the offence with which he is charged is deeply rooted and jealously guarded;[13]

(l) The weight and importance of the various factors that will be material in assessing the circumstances of publication will vary from case to case. Broadly speaking, the more important factors will include the following: the content of the publication; the nature of the proceedings liable to be affected, whether they are civil or criminal proceedings and whether at the time of publication they are pending at the committal, trial or appellate stage; the persons to whom the publication is addressed; and finally, the likely durability of the influence of the publication on its audience;[14]

He continued:

Para 25: For centuries, a ‘golden rule’ has been observed by journalists and publishers that while proceedings are being tried before the courts, information that is not admitted as evidence before the jury is not reported or published to prevent the possibility that the jury is influenced by prejudicial, extraneous, or irrelevant information. The rationale is well understood. In 1811, Lord Ellenborough stated in R v Fisher:[18]

“If anything is more important than another in the administration of justice, it is that jurymen should come to the trial of those persons on whose guilt or innocence they are to decide, with minds pure and unprejudiced’.”

Para 26: More recently, in 1985, Watkins LJ in Peacock v London Weekend Television[19] reaffirmed the balance between a fair trial and media reporting:

“In our land we do not allow trial by television or newspaper. Until the well-recognised institution of this country for the doing of justice, namely the courts, have worked their course, then the hand of the writer and the voice of the broadcaster must be still.”

Para 27: The rule is well understood by journalists through their education and is communicated to journalists by the court. The court’s website has a guide ‘Covering the Courts’[20] that stresses the importance of not disclosing material that is kept from a jury:

“Remember the golden rule: do not report anything said in the absence of the jury.

Advice: study, understand and remember these basic principles and you might avoid the fate of this Yahoo!7 reporter.

Journalism Educators

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, we all secretly know that this Yahoo!7 journalist could have been any one of our graduates in the modern news media environment.

24/7 rolling deadlines, staffing shortages, acute competition, minimal on the job training, combined with the rookie’s urge to prove themselves in a tough occupation mean that shortcuts are taken, mistakes are made, and much of the knowledge gained doing highly caffeinated swatting for media law exams has long since exited the memory banks.

This case is a clarion call to us to revisit our curricula and pedagogies and implement the latest learning and teaching techniques to “scaffold” and “deepen” our learning.

My recent experience has been that a combination of problem-based learning, formative quizzes, and end of semester problem scenarios seem to be far superior to the traditional end of semester sit-down exam of yesteryear. Add to the mix student discussion of cases and law reforms as they unfold, along with the embedding of some key media law revision in other subjects, and you gain confidence that the key principles will be learned and remembered in the news room – an exercise in genuine “mindful journalism” or “reflection-in-action”.

Media organisations

The halcyon era for media law training in news organisations was 1990-1994 with the operation of the Keating Government’s training guarantee levy – an obligation on corporations to spend 1.5% of their payroll on structured training courses. Back then regional journalists, for example, received up to five full days of media law training as part of their award and could not be promoted without being certified that they had undertaken it. From memory, it consisted of two days of defamation training, one day on contempt, another on court reporting, and the final on a mixed bag of other media law topics.

If they are lucky, journalists today might get a couple of hours every year or so of a media law briefing from a lawyer, on the strong (and usually false) assumption that they already know most of it from their university degrees.

In his 2017 sentencing judgment, Dixon J. found serious shortcomings in Yahoo!7’s training and workplace protocols justified the $300,000 fine:

“Para 26: I infer that the contemptuous publication likely occurred, at least in part, as a consequence of inadequate resourcing, driven by profit or commercial motivations. Conduct by media organisations that contributes to the risk of sub judice contempt in pursuit of a profit motive must be strongly discouraged.”

He was skeptical about the sustainability of the company’s assurances that it now had new systems in place to train journalists, assign extra editorial staff to manage the workload, and to engage external lawyers to assess court stories.

“Para 27: I can find no feeling of comfort that, should the profit motive rear its head in the future, Yahoo!7 (and other media organisations) will continue to incur expense to maintain systems and procedures that protect the integrity of court processes.”

“Para 30: The arrangements about legal advice before articles are uploaded to the internet appear clumsy, unrealistic in some respects, and may prove more difficult to enforce in practice, given time constraints and their importance in the business model being employed by Yahoo!7”.

One can only hope that all of those stakeholders – students, journalists, educators and media organisations – pay heed to those important lessons the learned judge has so eloquently expressed.

UPDATE: Court copycats caught out. ABC Media Watch exposes how some news organisations lift court reports from their competitors – an unethical practice with major legal pitfalls. View 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

1 Comment

Filed under contempt of court, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, Media regulation, mindful journalism, Press freedom, Uncategorized