By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
Much has happened in the field of media and social media law, even since the sixth edition of our Journalist’s Guide to Media Law (Pearson & Polden) was published in 2019.
As media law students start their academic year at Australian institutions, this calls for a quick update of the five most important risks facing journalists in the digital era.
- Defamation: Reforms to Australian defamation laws appear imminent, but the basic principles will remain the same. Pause before publishing anything criticising or ridiculing anyone and consider your language, evidence base, intended meaning, motivation and working knowledge of the defences available to you. If in doubt, seek legal advice. If you can’t afford that advice, then modify the material or leave it out – unless you have considerable defamation insurance. Society needs robust journalism, but remember it can also need deep pockets to defend it. The 2019 case of Voller v. Nationwide News underscores the decision in Allergy Pathway almost a decade ago: publishers may be responsible for the comments of others on their social media sites, particularly when posting articles on inflammatory topics or people. Ashurst law firm has produced a useful flow-chart to explain the steps a publisher should take to minimise the risks of liability for comments by third parties on their social media sites.
- High profile trials: Regardless of the fate of the 30 journalists and news organisations still facing contempt action over their reporting of last year’s trial of Cardinal George Pell, the episode reinforces the dangers facing those reporting and commenting upon major court matters. As we show in our crime reporting time zones flowchart in our text, a criminal case involves an interplay of risks including defamation, contempt and other restrictions. Courts and prosecutors take suppression orders seriously, so it is wise to pause to reflect and to take legal advice when navigating this territory.
- National security risks: Many of the 70-plus anti-terror laws passed in Australia since 2001 impact on journalists, with jail terms a real risk for those reporting on special intelligence operations, ASIO, suppressed trials, and any matter using insider government sources, along with a host of other risks as identified by Australia’s Right To Know’s submission to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security in 2019. The laws present a minefield for journalists covering national security, defence, immigration and related topics. It is a specialist field requiring a close familiarity with the numerous laws.
- Breach of confidence: Journalists are reluctant to reveal their own confidential sources, but they are keen to tell the secrets of others – particularly if matters of public interest are being covered up. Actions for breach of confidence allow individuals and corporations to seek injunctions to prevent their dirty linen being aired. Further, the Australian Law Reform Commission has recommended a new action of serious invasion of privacy and the future development of the action for breach of confidence with compensation for emotional distress. The Parliament has not yet embraced the proposal but judge-made law on privacy and confidentiality remains a possibility.
- Compromising sources: The journalist-source relationship is one where the journalist’s ethical obligation to preserve confidentiality is threatened by a number of laws. Most Australian jurisdictions now have shield laws giving judges a discretion to excuse a journalist from revealing a source after weighing up various public interest factors. This is far from a watertight protection and journalists face potential jail terms for ‘disobedience contempt’ for refusing a court order to reveal a source or hand over materials. Further, as two ABC journalists and News Corporation’s Annika Smethurst discovered last year, journalists can also face criminal charges for just handling or publishing confidential or classified materials given to them by whistleblowers, even if the matter relates to an important matter of public interest. The validity of the warrants to raid them over ‘dishonestly receiving stolen property’ (Commonwealth documents) was upheld by a Federal Court earlier this year, despite a range of arguments including shield laws and the constitutional implied freedom to communicate on political matters. Such action, combined with the far-reaching powers of authorities to access communications metadata and the proliferation of public CCTV footage presents huge challenges to journalists trying to keep their whistleblower sources secret. It is one thing to promise confidentiality to a source, but quite another to be able to honour that promise given modern surveillance technologies and the legal reach of agencies.
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 2020 – the moral right of the author has been asserted.