Tag Archives: contempt of court

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.

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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 2017

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Identification error leads to a useful case for teaching the basic elements of defamation

**See UPDATE after appeal**

By MARK PEARSON

[research assistance from Virginia Leighton-Jackson]

The morphed identification of an innocent octogenarian tailor and his alleged gun-running son produces a useful case study for teachers and trainers trying to explain the basic elements of defamation.

The NSW District Court case of Zoef v Nationwide News Pty Limited & Ors [2015] NSWDC 232 centred upon an article in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph (22-8-13, p. 9) with the heading “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner”. [The article in question is attached to the judgment as a pdf file.]

The article portrayed an 86-year-old suburban tailor with a distinctive name as a gun-runner who had been arrested, charged and appeared in court facing charges related to him holding a huge cache of weapons and ammunition at his home.

Police had indeed raided his premises and had found weapons and ammunition in the house’s garage, occupied by the tailor’s 43-year-old son, who shared his father’s name and was the actual individual who had appeared in court facing those charges.

The case is a fascinating one for student discussion because several basic concepts in defamation were contested and resolved, including:

  • imputations – how they are worded and presented
  • the misidentification’s impact on the plaintiff’s relationships, business and emotional state
  • the question of identification and case law establishing the extent of defamation of a second person with the same name and address as the first
  • whether a claim for defamation will hold when some other identifying factors do not match one of the named individuals. [In this case, while the headline identified the plaintiff as a tailor, the article featured a small photograph of his 43 year old son and mentioned the younger man’s age].
  • whether the defences of a fair report of proceedings of public concern could apply when there were serious inaccuracies in the article
  • whether an offer of amends had been reasonable and whether it had been accepted by the plaintiff.

On the question of identification, Judge Leonard Levy ruled:

Para 37   …where a plaintiff has actually been named in a defamatory publication it is not necessary for the plaintiff to show that those to whom the material was published knew the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Ltd v World Hosts Pty Ltd (1978 – 1979) 141 CLR 632, at 639.

38   Even so, the plaintiff must establish that the defamatory matter should be understood to be referring to him: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91. The determination of that question of identification is not to be decided by a consideration of what the publisher intended: Hutton v Jones [1910] AC 20.

39   In cases where a defamatory publication names one person but another person of the same name has been defamed, this can give rise to more than one claim: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276, as cited in Australian Defamation Law and Practice, Volume 1, TK Tobin QC, MG Sexton SC, eds, 2003, at [6050].

40   In determining the question of identification, the question is, would a sensible reader reasonably identify the plaintiff as the person defamed: Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239. …

49   In my view, the combined context … serves to adequately identify the plaintiff….

52   …the article strings together the plaintiff’s name, his profession, the fact that he lives in his home in the Sutherland Shire, and has a business altering the clothes of locals all point strongly to the article mentioning the plaintiff by his name and is sufficient of his personal situation to indicate it was him who was the subject of the article.

53   Those details all follow the sensational headline “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” thereby making a connection between the plaintiff and the described illegal activity concerning the cache of weapons and ammunition found at the premises.

54   The fact that an unclear undated photograph of Tony Zoef appears in the article (at par 38) is immaterial. The fact the article identifies the age of the person the subject of the article as being a 43 year old does introduce an element of possible confusion (par 30) along with the indistinct photograph (at par 38), but inaccuracy of some details appearing in a newspaper article is not an unknown phenomenon.

55   The salient feature is that the plaintiff was named in the article with sufficient of his personal details to suggest he was thereby identified, although the latter details are not essential to that finding.

56   As the article in question named the plaintiff, in my view thereby identifying him, this forms the basis of his right to bring the proceedings without more being shown by him. The fact that there were two persons at the premises named Tony Zoef is immaterial. Both persons of that name could bring proceedings for defamation in their own names: Lee v Wilson and Mackinnon (1934) 51 CLR 276.

59   …I am nevertheless satisfied that the material complained of should be understood as referring to the plaintiff even though the publisher may not have intended that to be so: Consolidated Trust Co Ltd v Browne (1948) 49 SR (NSW) 86, at 91.

60   I consider that … an ordinary sensible reader would identify the plaintiff as the person the subject of the material complained of because of the specific of his name, profession, and locality as already explained. Such a reader… would not read such a sensational article as the one in question with critical and analytical care.

61   The article would be approached by such a reader with the permissible amount of loose thinking, and that reader would be reasonably entitled to draw the conclusion that the article was referring to the plaintiff, even though there were some elements of confusion such as a less than distinct photograph and a different age mentioned to that of the plaintiff. An ordinary reasonable reader would not necessarily know the plaintiff’s age or his level of interest in matters to do with space. The headline of “Tailor’s alter ego as a gunrunner” would catch the attention of such a reader and permit the general impression of the story being a reference to the plaintiff: Mirror Newspapers Limited v World Hosts Proprietary Limited [1978 – 1979] 141 CLR 632, at p 646; Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd [1971] 1 WLR 1239.

The judge also considered the important question of the impact of headlines:

44   In cases involving headlines, it must be borne in mind that the ordinary reasonable reader will draw conclusions from general impressions when reading the matter complained of. Such general impressions are necessarily formed by the technique of using prominent headlines to communicate the principal message of the publication, and it must be recognised that in that process, such material may diminish the reputations of those affected: Chakravarti v Advertiser Newspapers Limited (1998) 193 CLR 519, at p 575.

A large portion of the judgment centred upon whether a defence of ‘offer of amends’ should be upheld under s 18(1)(c) of the Defamation Act. The judge held that, despite the serious errors in the reporting of the story and a dispute over whether the offer of amends was reasonable and had been withdrawn, the newspaper was entitled to the offer of amends defence.

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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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Memo #RSF Paris: Australian media freedom at risk from anti-terror laws

By MARK PEARSON

[Research assistance from media freedom intern Jasmine Lincoln]

Memo to: Benjamin Ismail, Bureau Asie-Pacifique, Reporters sans frontiers (RSF – Reporters Without Borders), Paris.

From: Mark Pearson, RSF correspondent, Australia

RSFlogo-enI regret to advise that several events and policy proposals have impacted negatively on the state of media freedom in Australia.

They are highly likely to threaten Australia’s ranking on your forthcoming RSF World Press Freedom Index.

A raft of new laws and policies proposed by the conservative Abbott Government has placed its stamp on media law and free and open public commentary.

The initiatives follow in the steps of the prior Labor Government that had proposed a new media regulatory regime with potentially crippling obligations under the Privacy Act.

In the course of its first year in office the Abbott Government has:

– imposed a media blackout on vital information on the important human rights issue of the fate of asylum seekers;

– initiated major budget cuts on the publicly funded ABC;

– used anti-terror laws to win a ‘super injunction’ on court proceedings that might damage its international relations (see your earlier RSF release on this, which I cannot legally reproduce here for fear of a contempt charge);

– moved to stop not-for-profits advocating against government policy in their service agreements, meaning they lose funding if they criticise the government;

– slated the Office of the Information Commissioner for abolition, promising tardy FOI appeals;

– proposed the taxing of telcos to pay for its new surveillance measures, potentially a modern version of licensing the press;

– proposed ramped up surveillance powers of national security agencies and banning reporting of security operations (See Prime Minister’s August 5 release here);

– proposed increased jail terms for leaks about security matters (you issued a release on July 22 the impact for whistleblowers);

– mooted a new gag on ‘incitement to terrorism’;

– proposed new laws reversing the onus of proof about the purpose of their journey for anyone, including journalists, travelling to Syria or Iraq.

Major media groups have expressed their alarm at the national security proposals in a joint submission stating that the new surveillance powers and measures against whistleblowers would represent an affront to a free press.

Over the same period the judiciary has presided over the jailing of a journalist for breaching a suppression order, the conviction of a blogger for another breach, and several instances of journalists facing contempt charges over refusal to reveal their sources. There have also been numerous suppression orders issued, including this one over a Victorian gangland trial.

Other disturbing signs have been actions by police and departmental chiefs to intimidate journalists and media outlets.

  • The Australian Federal Police raided the Seven Network headquarters in Sydney in February, purportedly in search of evidence of chequebook journalism, triggering an official apology this week.
  • Defence Chief General David Hurley wrote to newly elected Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie in March, warning her not to use the media to criticise the military.
  • Freelance journalist Asher Wolf received a threatening letter from the secretary for the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) Martin Bowles following her co-written article for the Guardian Australia on February  19, 2014 titled ‘Immigration Department data lapse reveals asylum seekers’ personal details.’ The public service mandarin’s letter implied Wolf had obtained the material on which the article was based by ‘dishonest or unfair means’ and demanded Wolf agree not to publish the contents and ‘return all hard and soft copies of the information’ including any her storage devices. See the letter here: WolfDIBP to The Guardian – A Wolf. The Sydney Morning Herald later reported that the DIBP was hiring private contractors to trawl social media and order pro-asylum seeker activists to remove their protesting posts.

I am sure you will agree that these developments are not what we would expect to be unfolding in a Western democracy like Australia where media freedom has previously been at a level respected by the international community.

Kind regards,

Mark Pearson (@journlaw)

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Sources for further detail on the national security reforms:

(6 August, 2014). Inquiry into the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014 Submission. Retrieved from: file:///C:/Users/jasmine/Downloads/17.%20Joint%20media%20organisations%20(1).pdf.

Criminal Code Act 1995 (Qld) s. 5.4 (Austl.).

Grubb, B. (19 August, 2014). Anti-leak spy laws will only target ‘reckless’ journalists: Attorney-General’s office. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/antileak-spy-laws-will-only-target-reckless-journalists-attorneygenerals-office-20140818-1059c7.html.

Grubb, B. (30 July, 2014). Edward Snowden’s lawyer blasts Australian law that would jail journalists reporting on spy leaks. Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/consumer-security/edward-snowdens-lawyer-blasts-australian-law-that-would-jail-journalists-reporting-on-spy-leaks-20140730-zyn95.html.

Hopewell, L. (17 July, 2014). New Aussie Security Laws Would Jail Journalists for Reporting on Snowden Style-Leaks. Retrieved from: http://www.gizmodo.com.au/2014/07/new-aussie-security-laws-would-jail-journalists-for-reporting-on-snowden-style-leaks/.

Murphy, K. (17 August, 2014). David Leyonhjelm believes security changes restrict ordinary Australians. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/aug/17/david-leyonhjelm-security-changes-restrict-australians.

Parliament of Australia (15 August, 2014). Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, 15/08/2014, National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No. 1) 2014. Retrieved from: http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;adv=yes;db=COMMITTEES;id=committees%2Fcommjnt%2F2066f963-ee87-4000-9816-ebc418b47eb4%2F0002;orderBy=priority,doc_date-rev;query=Dataset%3AcomJoint;rec=0;resCount=Default.

The Greens (1 August, 2014). Brandis presumption of terror guilt could trap journalists, aid workers. Retrieved from: http://greens.org.au/node/5617.

 

© Mark Pearson 2014

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.

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Barrister and co-author Mark Polden chats with @journlaw on #defamation defences: #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Defamation laws can be intimidating for journalists, bloggers and other professional communicators. The key, according to barrister Mark Polden, is in researching and writing to the basic defences.

Mark Polden was in-house counsel at Fairfax Media for many years before going to the Bar, and is my co-author of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Allen & Unwin).

In this 11 minute interview with @journlaw, he outlines in simple terms the three ‘bread and butter’ defences used by writers and publishers – truth, fair report and honest opinion (fair comment).

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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 2014

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On Skype with @journlaw – barrister and co-author Mark Polden on #defamation basics: #MLGriff

By MARK PEARSON

Exactly what is defamation and how does it apply to your average journalist or blogger?

That’s what I asked barrister Mark Polden in this short interview on defamation basics. Mark Polden was in-house counsel at Fairfax Media for many years before going to the Bar, and is my co-author of The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Allen & Unwin).

Here he offers a lay definition of defamation and gives some examples of how journalists, bloggers and other professional communicators might write to minimise the threat of legal action.

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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 2014

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15 mins with @journlaw – Peter Gregory on the art of court reporting #MLGriff #medialaw

By MARK PEARSON

What is the secret to good court reporting? Highly experienced court reporter and academic Peter Gregory [@petergregory17] – author of Court Reporting in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2005) – tells @journlaw the essential techniques needed by a journalist wanting to cover the court reporting round.

CourtReportinginAustraliacoverGregory explains how he recently returned to duty when he filled in to cover the sentencing of Adrian Bayley for the murder of Jill Meagher – in a marathon 12 hour shift!

He discusses the court reporter’s difficulties in writing fair and accurate reports of trials, particularly when they might be unfolding in different courtrooms at the same time.

He also gives tips on how a journalist might stand up in court to oppose a suppression order being imposed by a judge or magistrate.

Useful viewing for journalism and law students – and for anyone wanting an insight into the work of the court reporter.

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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 2014

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15 mins with @journlaw – Peter Gregory on ‘contempt and the court reporter’ #MLGriff #medialaw

By MARK PEARSON

We hear about the many types of contempt affecting the role of the court reporter – but how does a journalist manage this in practice?

That is exactly the issue I raised with veteran court reporter (now academic) Peter Gregory [@petergregory17] in this interview covering the main types of contempt of court affecting court reporting – contempt in the face of the court, disobedience contempt, sub judice (prejudicial reporting) and interference with the deliberations of jurors.

Gregory – author of Court Reporting in Australia (Cambridge University Press, 2005) – explains how court reporters might be affected by such forms of contempt, offers examples from his own career, and suggests how journalists might adjust their own practice to minimise risk.

CourtReportinginAustraliacoverHe looks at the impact of new technologies – particularly social media – in the courtroom. Finally, he assesses the dynamics of social media and traditional media at play in the major Victorian trial of the murderer of Irishwoman Jill Meagher (Adrian Bayley) which resulted in the jailing of blogger Derryn Hinch on a contempt charge after disobeying a suppression order.

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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 2014

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