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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

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

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).

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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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Reporting Islam in the spotlight at #AEJMC16

By MARK PEARSON

My sabbatical semester travels now have me in Minneapolis for the annual convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication – #AEJMC16.

Visiting the Hindu temple in Minneapolis with the Religion and Media interest group from AEJMC with my Mindful Journalism co-author Shelton Gunaratne (front row, second from left).

Visiting the Hindu temple in Minneapolis with the Religion and Media interest group from AEJMC with my Mindful Journalism co-author Shelton Gunaratne (front row, second from left). [Photo: Julie Pearson]

I’m presenting a paper titled “Perspectives of journalists, educators, trainers and experts on news media reporting of Islam and Muslim communities in Australia and New Zealand”, showcasing research from our @ReportingIslam project, written with colleagues Jacqui Ewart (@jacquiewart) and Guy Healy.

Our paper uses data from an Australian study to ascertain issues associated with news media coverage of Islam and Muslims from the perspectives of journalists, journalism educators and media trainers. We draw on data from interviews with 37 journalists, editors, educators, media trainers, Muslim community leaders and other experts located in Australia and New Zealand to explore their understandings of the ways stories about Islam and Muslims are reported and why.

We’re looking forward to the feedback from colleagues after two interesting sessions on similar topics yesterday.

On Wednesday we visited Muslim, Hindu and Christian places of worship in Minnesota with the Media and Religion interest group from the conference (pictured left).

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

Gearing up for a stimulating and mindful #wjec16

By MARK PEARSON

Many of the leading lights in journalism education internationally gather in Auckland next week for the fourth World Journalism Education Congress at AUT Auckland.

WJECWebsiteScreenshotFor me, it will be a busy start to a sabbatical semester and I am looking forward to chairing a session, being respondent for another, a panellist in a 21st century ethics discussion, and presenting two conference papers with @ReportingIslam project colleague Jacqui Ewart (@jacquiewart).

Interested? Here are the session descriptions and abstracts. See the full program here.

WJEC preconference of the Journalism Education and Research Association of Australia (JERAA), AUT Pacific Media Centre (PMC) and Media Educators Pacific (MEP), Wednesday, 13 July 2016, 4-5.30pm

A Research-driven Approach to Developing a Best Practice Checklist for Journalists Reporting upon Islam and Muslims

Prof Mark Pearson and Prof Jacqui Ewart (Griffith University, Australia)

This paper explains the processes undertaken to research, develop and trial a checklist for journalists or journalism students for the ethical and mindful reporting of stories involving Islam as a religion or Muslim people. The presenters outline an innovative approach to such a task where the international literature in the field and follow-up research informed the creation of an extended checklist which was then refined according to the perceived needs and priorities of the journalists and students who were presented with it.

This paper presents the methodology and results of the study implementing exactly that approach, which might inform future approaches to the development of such guidelines across a broad range of reporting topics. The study formed part of a major Australian Government funded project involving the creation of research-based resources on the mindful reporting of Islam and Muslim people.

Academic research papers stemming from international studies on reporting Islam and journalism ethics were searched. We also undertook 29 interviews with journalists, journalism educators, journalism students and academics with expertise in the media and Islam in Australia and New Zealand. Topics covered included best and poor practice and curricular and pedagogical approaches to educating journalists for more mindful reporting. We analysed this data – previous studies and the interview transcripts – as a crucial part of the development of an extended list of 30 questions journalists and editors might ask themselves when covering a story related to Islam or Muslim people. Journalists, educators and journalism students (n = 123) attending workshops throughout 2015 were presented with the 30 questions and were asked to nominate the 10 they felt were most important (in no particular order), using a variation of “forced choice” testing in survey methodology (Frederick, 2004, pp. 397-398). The responses were then ranked in order of importance into a “Top Ten” checklist and subsequently built into the project’s resources and curricula which were in turn trialled with journalists, journalism educators and students at several sites in four Australian states and in Canberra. This paper explains that the approach has at least three benefits – the pedagogical advantage of the embedded learning happening while the participants perform the ranking; the reassurance for the teaching resource developers that the selected guidelines are considered the most important by the target groups; and the enhanced credibility of the resulting guidelines for those subsequently using them. The paper details the methodological and educational research underpinning the approach and presents the resulting refined checklist.

Frederick, R. (2004). Forced-choice testing. In M. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman, & T. Liao (Eds.), Encyclopedia of social science research methods. (pp. 397-398). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

WJEC Conference, July 14, 11am-12.30pm

Panel 2: 21st century ethical issues in journalism
WG404
This panel explores the ethics of journalism in an environment where journalistic authority is diminished and new relationships with news publics are being sought. The speakers, drawing on a range of philosophical positions, will explore arguments around journalistic independence, engagement with the public good, transparency and sincerity. In doing so, the panel members will trace some of the major fault lines in contemporary journalism ethics around truth-telling and accountability and assess ways through which journalists can morally justify their work.
Chair: Donald Matheson, Canterbury University (New Zealand)
Panelists:
Mark Pearson, Griffith University (Australia)
Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University (Hong Kong)
Linda Steiner, University of Maryland (United States)
Respondent: Stephen Ward, University of British Columbia/University of Wisconsin-Madison (Canada)
WJEC Conference, July 16, 11-12.30pm
Paper session: 21st Century Ethical Issues in Journalism 3
WG607

Eliciting Best Practice in Reporting Islam: Case studies from Australia

Mark Pearson and Jacqui Ewart, Griffith University

Much is known about the poor practices adopted by some news media outlets in their coverage of Islam and Muslims, but relatively little research has been conducted into what might constitute best practice in this important area of reportage (Pintak & Franklin, 2013; Rupar, 2012). In this presentation we discuss two case studies from Australia, involving a range of approaches to reporting stories involving Islam and Muslims. These case studies were part of the first stage of a projected three-stage project aimed at developing best practice resources to encourage the more mindful reporting of Islam and Muslims. The first case study includes a set of examples of news media reporting of proposed and existing mosques and prayer rooms. We chose this particular case study because the international literature revealed that mosque proposals and construction projects frequently became the focus of negative news media coverage (DeHansas and Pieri 2011; Dunn, 2001; Alleivi, 2009). Key journalistic lessons to emerge from the examination of the articles about coverage of planned, proposed or existing mosques included the need to: pay attention to the type of language used in news reports; focus on using non-inflammatory language; ensure a range of voices are heard in reports; avoid giving attention to extreme points of view held by a minority; ensure images are in context; verify the veracity of protestors’ claims; assess the proportion of protesting residents in the particular community; embed ongoing coverage of issues affecting Muslim communities into the news schedule; and consider the broader social and current affairs context when covering stories about Islam and Muslims.

The second case study focuses on two approaches to national media coverage of radicalisation and association of Muslim people with violence and terrorism because the international body of research highlights the tendency of news media to make connections between, or conflate, these issues (Altheide, 2007; Murphy et al, 2015; Pintak and Franklin, 2013; Rupar, 2012).

There were some similarities and some differences between the approaches of the two national media outlets (newspaper and public television) to essentially the same topic of radicalisation of Australian Muslim men at approximately the same point of history. Both used a range of sources including some experts, mainstream Muslims and radicalised militants and/or their friends or associates; demonstrated a lack of detail on the sponsorship of their key expert sources; and simplified and sensationalised the issue in key aspects. Differences included: a generalised headline damaging the credibility of the newspaper’s overall coverage and the television program’s use of a moment of conflict in its promo; the newspaper’s use of a single expert source and the television program’s use of several; the newspaper’s profile of a single Muslim suburban woman for its ‘typical’ or ‘mainstream’ Muslim perspective as opposed to the television program’s inclusion of a range of diverse Muslim voices from different ethnic groups and locations; and the newspaper’s delay in offering Muslim community leaders’ perspectives until its follow-up coverage the next day as distinct from the television program including several such voices.

Using the international literature about best practice in reporting Islam and Muslims and the findings from our analysis of the case studies, we draw upon the research, our case studies and selected data from a series of interviews with experts to present a schema of 30 best practice questions journalists might reflect upon when reporting Islam and Muslims.

References

Allievi, S. (2009). ‘Conflicts Over Mosques in Europe: Policy Issues and Trends–NEF Initiative on Religion and Democracy in Europe’, Network of European Foundations.

Altheide, D.L. (2007). The Mass Media and Terrorism, Discourse and Communication, 1(3): 287-308.

De Hanas, D.N., and Pieri, Z.P. (2011). Olympic Proportions: The Expanding Scalar Politics of the London ‘Olympics Mega-Mosque’, Sociology 45(5): 798-814.

Dunn, K. M. (2001), Representations of Islam in the politics of mosque development in Sydney. Tijdschrift voor economische en sociale geografie, 92: 291–308.

Murphy, K., Cherney, A., and Barkworth, J., (2015), forthcoming). Avoiding Community Backlash in the fight against terrorism: Research Report.

Pintak, Lawrence and Franklin, Stephen (eds) (2013). Islam for Journalists; A Primer on Covering Muslim Communities in America. [Digital newsbook]. US Social Science Research Council; Edward R Murrow College of Communication, Washington State University. Available: https://www.rjionline.org/downloads/islam-for-journalists

Rupar, V. (2012). Getting the facts right: Reporting ethnicity and religion. A study of media coverage of ethnicity and religion in Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Slovakia and the United Kingdom.[Project Report]. Brussels: International Federation of Journalists. Available: http://ethicaljournalisminitiative.org/en/contents/eji-study-2012

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RELATED:

More on the Reporting Islam Project:

Griffith University Red Couch interview: Spotlight on Reporting Islam

ALSO RELATED:

Related to my ethics panel presentation, our recent 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.

Interested? You can listen to my 10 minute interview on Radio National’s Media Report here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.46.24 am

See also my 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 2016

2 Comments

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

Ethical lessons from the 60 Minutes abduction saga

By MARK PEARSON

International readers of this blog might be unaware of the national debate in Australia over the involvement of an Australian 60 Minutes television current affairs crew in last month’s abduction of two children in Lebanon who were the subject of a parental custody dispute.

The Australian mother of the child – Sally Faulkner – and the reporter Tara Brown and her three crew were jailed for two weeks along with the alleged abduction contractor Adam Whittington who remained in jail seeking bail this week.

The Nine Entertainment Company announced an investigation into the circumstances surrounding its flagship current affairs program’s involvement in the failed abduction attempt.

Following that announcement (April 21, 2016) ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber interviewed me about the ethical dimensions of the saga.

Here is the recording of that interview. [Transcription below by Virginia Leighton-Jackson].

SoundcloudInterviewScreenshot

Interview with ABC Gold Coast’s Matt Webber

Matt Webber: Let’s concentrate on the Nine Network for now. What are the main questions it needs to answer?

Mark Pearson (@journlaw): Well Matt, I think in your introduction you started to hit upon the main questions, and I think they’re questions that need [answering] – I mean hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s very easy for an academic like me to be looking at this in hindsight and saying all the things that should have been done. But the sorts of questions that you were just asking [are relevant] – Who is involved? Who are the stakeholders? Who are those who might get hurt through such a story? The first thing Channel Nine should be doing, I believe, is setting up accountable systems where those questions are actually asked before stories are embarked upon. And that involves…

MW: Are we naive to think that wouldn’t happen?

MP: I don’t think so; I think people would get carried away, and particularly in a highly emotionally charged story like a custody battle it’s very easy to hear one party’s side of the story. Another issue here is of course is the simple fact of obeying laws. Now, there seems to be like a cultural view that has come through this story that going to another place, the ‘other’, a place like Lebanon, excuses journalists from doing what would be absolutely illegal for them to be doing here in Australia. I mean only a couple of years ago one of the leading news stories was a custody battle over children in Queensland where the Italian father had won custody of the children, and the family – the grandparents and the mother – were fighting the order of the court that the children be taken back to Italy. What if that had happened in that case? Just say the order had gone the other way and the father and an Italian TV crew was here and the children were grabbed on the streets of the Gold Coast and taken, and the plan was to take them to a boat at Southport, and somehow the TV crew had helped fund the abduction. Can people imagine what would have happened there? So what Channel Nine needs to be asking is what is going on there culturally in their mindset about these sorts of stories to think that it’s okay to do that in Lebanon, but it’s not okay to do it in Australia. What’s their view of another country’s legal system that allows that to happen?

Now there’s still a lot of this story to come out, facts that we will hear about – you just played a part of the father’s version of whether or not people are being paid or whatever. The truth of all of that will eventually come out. But I think what Channel Nine needs to do is actually follow the privacy guidelines of ACMA, the Broadcasting Authority, but follow them to the letter. They are not obligatory, but they need to actually look at them; where it says that children are more vulnerable, and the privacy of children is something that really needs close scrutiny. And in public interest – what they might call public interest doesn’t outweigh the rights of children to be considered. A story like this has ripple effects across a whole range of stakeholders, and they need to actually have a formalised process which goes through considering the potential impact on all of those involved – including in this case, the news crew.

MW: Indeed. Mark Pearson, a professor in journalism at Griffith University. Often ‘journalistic ethics’ is a pair of words that is tossed around fairly liberally. The Code of Ethics that journalists need to adhere to, are they sufficiently aware of it? Or are they far too ignorant of it, either wilfully or otherwise?

MP: Well, journalists do know about the Code of Ethics, and most journalists these days have been through some journalism program, like a degree or whatever and have learned about the Code of Ethics. But the big problem with the Australian journalists’ Code of Ethics, and most others, is that there is a whopping ‘get-out’ clause. What it says is that all of these are things that should be strived for, but if the public interest, or if the story is of such public concern then that excuses journalists, outweighing those ethical considerations. But it does make specific reference to chequebook journalism – now I’m not saying that’s happened in this case, is it chequebook journalism to help fund an operation? Well, that’s something we’ll be able to discuss once more facts come out. But also things like dealing with children and the vulnerable, and thinking of those potential implications.

So I think it’s more than just journalists’ ethics: it’s a basic moral code that most humans think twice before they do something that is related to or can impact badly on children’s lives. And so if anything comes of this, I would hope that people take special care, and newsrooms implement practices that ring extra alarm bells if there are going to be children involved in any story.

MW: What about those who will argue that look, commercial television is, particularly commercial TV Current Affairs, is a wild and woolly old world, boundaries will always be pushed; that’s the nature of capitalism in many regards. This shouldn’t come as any surprise that this sort of thing is happening. What do you say to those types?

MP: Well if there is a commercial or a capitalism argument for breaching ethics I think you can counter that with another equally commercial or capitalist argument: and that is the only thing that journalism has left these days, compared with its internet rivals, compared with the jungle of news breakers out there who might be citizen journalists or people doing it simply for a commercial imperative, the only thing that we have remaining to sell news is credibility and respect in the community. And that comes through having an ethical code that journalists adhere to. I think 60 Minutes has lost a lot of credibility out of this, and I think Channel Nine will be reviewing that because there is a commercial loss involved when you’ve overstepped the mark and you lose respect in the eyes of the community. 60 Minutes used to be a wonderful news brand, and Channel Nine will be asking what’s happened to that in the wake of this episode.

MW: Interesting observations, Mark Pearson, I really appreciate your time. Thank you.

MP: Thanks Matt

MW: Mark Pearson, Professor of Journalism and Social Media at Griffith University’s School of Humanities (Languages, and Social Science).

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RELATED:

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.

Interested? You can listen to my 10 minute interview on Radio National’s Media Report here.

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 9.46.24 am

See also my 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 2016

Leave a comment

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

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under blogging, contempt of court, courts, free expression, media ethics, Media freedom, media law, Press freedom, sub judice, suppression, Uncategorized

‘Right Speech’ and media law – mindful journalism as an analytical tool

By MARK PEARSON

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 pm

I  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.

The article proposes the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and their associated Noble Eightfold Path (magga) can be fruitful tools for informing communication theory and analysis, and media law and ethics.

In media analysis, it suggests the Buddha’s teachings on Right Speech (samma vaca) offer key understandings to assist with the deconstruction of media texts. In media law and ethics, it extends the application of Right Speech principles to comparing defences to libel (defamation) as they have developed in four Western jurisdictions.

Here is a brief extract showing the potential for exploring media law using a Buddhist/mindful journalism framework:

The ultimate contest over media talk and Right Speech happens in the courts when media texts face charges for their criminality or are the subject of civil suits over their alleged infringement on citizens’ rights like copyright, confidentiality and defamation. There is also value in applying a mindful, Buddhist approach to the study of communication and media law. We can hardly reject the teachings of the founder of one of the world’s greatest religions as inappropriate in a communication law context on exclusively secular grounds because that would imply our so-called secular approaches to communication and media theory and ethics have no religious roots. No Western academic could deny deep-seated Abrahamic influences upon the cultural origins of media law and its scholarship. A whole body of literature on the philosophy of science and religion attests to it. In media law and ethics, libertarian approaches to press freedom espoused by the likes of Milton, Mill and Jefferson arose in an era when political, cultural and religious notions of rights were intertwined. For example, the most famous treatise against licensing of the press – Milton’s Areopagitica – was prefaced with an explanation that Moses, David and Paul the Apostle were all learned because they were able to read widely. Milton wrote:

…as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye (Milton, 1644).

The U.S. Supreme Court cited Areopagitica in the landmark defamation case of New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 US 254, when explaining why it would be counter-productive to move the burden of proving truth to the defendant (NY Times v. Sullivan, Footnote 19). Thus, by only two degrees of separation, we find Judeo-Christian teachings informing a key decision on news media talk in one of the most purportedly secular of institutions – the U.S. Supreme Court. Related to this, as Rolph (2008: 38-43) notes, defamation as the tort used to contest objectionable speech, first arose in England in 1222 in the ecclesiastical (church) courts where it remained a spiritual offence for about four centuries. Damage to a reputation was seen to be an offence to the target’s soul – a right that only God should possess – to be judged only by God’s earthly adjudicators, the clergy. There was even recourse for appeals from English ecclesiastical court judgments to the Pope (Rolph, 2008: 45). From the 16th century, defamation actions were increasingly brought in the common law courts, with the courts developing a list of allegations with which they would deal, without needing proof of actual damage being caused by the defamation (Morison & Sappideen 1989: 173). Even today the Catechism of the Catholic Church lists ‘detraction’ (essentially gossip – or disclosing ‘another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them’) as a sin – or an ‘offense against truth’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2477). Thus, defamation action – the legal action available to those subjected to damaging media talk – has a traceable Christian genealogy.

In this globalised, multi-cultural and multi-jurisdictional Web 2.0 era there should be no reason why the Judeo-Christian lens should have a monopoly on our examination of communication law. A mindful reading of defamation law benefits from a consideration of both Right Speech principles and concepts of necessary truth-telling. While it is far-fetched to expect judges and legislators in the West would turn to Buddhism for the reform of defamation law, an effort to abide by truth-telling and Right Speech principles could operate effectively when professional communicators are attempting to avoid libel litigation when pursuing their stories. Further, they present excellent tools for an alternative analysis.

Analysis of the development of defamation defences in Canada, the UK, Australia and the U.S. benefit from a Buddhist reading. In Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61, [2009] 3 S.C.R. 640, the Supreme Court of Canada developed a ‘responsible communication’ defence to defamation for matters which might not have been able to be proven absolutely as true, but were still diligently reported and were clearly in the public interest to be aired within the spirit of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms protection of free expression. Chief Justice McLachlin summed up the relevant factors of the ‘responsible communication’ defence on a demonstrable matter of public interest in these terms:

  • seriousness of the allegation
  • public importance of the matter
  • urgency of the matter
  • status and reliability of the source
  • whether the plaintiff’s side of the story was sought and accurately reported
  • whether the inclusion of the defamatory material was justifiable
  • whether a defamatory statement’s public interest lay in the fact that it had been made rather than whether it was truthful
  • other relevant circumstances

The court drew upon similar criteria to those developed earlier in the UK case of Reynolds v. Times Newspapers Ltd [2001] 2 AC 127 as part of the common law qualified privilege defence and elements of the statutory qualified privilege defence in Australia’s uniform Defamation Acts 2005.

The most significant First Amendment case in recent decades was New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 US 254 where it was ruled that public of­ficials had to meet tough new tests before they could succeed in a defamation action even if the allegations in the article were proven false. It established that plaintiffs who were ‘public officials’ had to prove a media defendant had acted with ‘actual malice’ if they were to win a defamation action, even if the defamatory allegation was untrue. The test has since been expanded to apply to any ‘public figure’— essentially anyone who is well known to the public, has taken on some public role or who has participated voluntarily in some controversy. While the prin­ciple has some difficulties in definition and application, it has meant the media in the United States have been free to publish criticism of virtually anyone in the public domain, even if the criticism proves to be unfounded, just so long as they have not acted maliciously or in ‘reckless disregard’ of the truth.

It is possible to implement a Buddhist approach using the Right Speech teachings from the Noble Eightfold Path to conduct an analysis in this area of communication law. The author proposes to do this more thoroughly in future work. However, for the purposes of this argument we might return to the Abhaya Sutta … and contrast these defences as they have been developed in these jurisdictions (Thanissaro, 1997). Crucial to the Canadian ‘responsible communication’ defence and its qualified privilege cousins in the UK and Australia is the extent to which reporters and publishers honestly believe in the truth of the defamatory material published, even though they might not have the firm evidence to prove this in court. They would pass the Buddhist (mindful journalism) test if they had an honest belief the material was “factual, true, beneficial” while perhaps being “unendearing and disagreeable to others”, as long as they had chosen the “proper time” for reporting it (Thanissaro, 1997). However, the U.S. defences driven by the First Amendment takes this liberty a step too far under this schema, because it allows unbeneficial, unendearing and disagreeable material to be published about public figures as long as it has not been done with malice. It also allows for untruthful gossip-mongering, as identified earlier in the Saleyyaka Sutta (Nanamoli, 1994) as ethically problematic. Such analysis shows promise in the field of media law analysis, reform and policy development because it provides a working ethical framework to apply to legislation and the fact scenarios of particular cases.

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.

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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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