I attended an interesting Press Gazette conference last week on the new defamation act and its implications.
Much of it looks like good news for journalists, especially digital journalists, with improved protections against spurious libel claims.
There’s still much to be tested in the courts but it is especially heartening to see the Reynolds’ Defence now formalised as the Public Interest, or Section 4, Defence.
This essentially says journalists have a defence against libel action if they can show that a story was on a matter of public interest and that they reasonably believed that publishing was in the public interest. And that defence can hold even if they cannot prove that the allegations are true.
Among the conference speakers was Andrew Caldecott QC – one of the country’s most experienced media lawyers. He outlined his nine principles for ensuring a successful public interest defence.
1. The journalist must report fairly what they know.
2. What is the nature of the allegation and how is it pitched? IE Is it a serious allegation? Are we saying that they’re guilty or that there are merely questions about behaviour?
3. Never tinker with direct quotes.
4. Watch the sub-editor. And if possible hold copies of emails to sub-editors warning of the danger of tinkering with copy or over-egging headlines on sensitive stories.
5. Seek and publish the response of the target of the story.
6. Carefully place any denial of allegations by the target. Having it in the final par makes it look like it’s disbelieved.
7. In online copy be sensitive to changing circumstances. That doesn’t mean re-editing published stories, but writing new ones in light of new information.
8. Keep your notes and emails. Post-Leveson it’s not acceptable to say they’re no longer available.
9. Be careful what you put in emails. It may be used against you in the future.
A good set of guiding principles. As ever, McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists has chapter and verse.