Journalism – a legal definition

It’s carnival of journalism time again and this month Doug Fisher is in the chair. As has become the form over the last few carnivals Doug has suggested a topic:

What changes will need to be made in national and international legal systems to help the digital age, and especially journalism in the digital age, flourish?

A tough question but , as Doug points out, a good one given the multinational membership or the traveling J show.

Of course I’m kicking myself that I didn’t remember the carnival was due before posting two posts about legal issues. Also, thee issue of copyright/fair use has already popped-up in the Carnival.

So my thoughts turned to the mechanical stuff that UK journo students get rammed in to them from day one. The stuff that they have to do and know because that’s what being a journalist is.

Contempt

The one that really struck me was contempt of court – Editorially tripping yourself up in the run up to a trial or during is one of those things every journo fears. So much emphasis is placed on getting court reporting write in the UK that many still insist that a journalist can do shorthand. No recording devices in UK courts you see. In fact getting your notes wrong can be a big issue for everyone in your organisation.

Without getting deep in to the guts of contempt (my snippet of copyright law is all you get this month), one of the tests for contempt (well strict liability contempt) is Proximity. What chance is there that a juror or anyone else involved with the case would see content that could predjudice the fair outcome of the trial.

In the days of newspapers and even TV this was less of an issue. After all how likely is it that someone sitting on a jury in one part of the country would read a paper from another?  But it doens’t take a law degree to see how the web would make a bit of a mockery of that.

And the implications don’t just stop there. On a global platform, how do you protect yourself when you report what is going on in another part of the world?

Global reach

What do you do if you find that someone from your patch is accused of a crime in, say, Australia? You could still find yourself in contempt. In the US things are a little different thanks to the first amendment but contempt – even with (by UK standards) an open court system – can still be an issue.

Now I’m not saying that the law around contempt should be tightened up and god forbid that we should encourage a worldwide meeting of lawyers to hammer it out – if they can’t do climate change then… well you know what I mean. And, like I said, you don’t need a law degree to work out that this is an issue.  But it is clear that learning all this multimedia stuff is going to be the tip of the iceberg – hyperlocal, local, national or international.  And it’s going to be frustrating.

But if you think it’s any different for bloggers, well we know that’s not the case.

And this is where it get’s problematic. Time was a journalist could find themselves in contempt because they where the only ones who could. They where the only ones who could publish. Now that anyone can publish everyone is, or should be, equally at risk.

Journalism – a legal definition

Contemp, like so many other laws, is a law that was made for another world. But the growing issue is now how any law that used to only impact on journalists is being applied (or not) across the board to those who publish.

And that’s where I think we could look at what happens internationally.

Perhaps we need to look harder at the distinction between citizen and journalist. Individual and profession. Individual and organisation. Not because it means managing an elite club but because it’s actuallydefining of what we do.

If being at risk of the law is one of the risks you take as a journalists. Then it’s clear that many, many more people are journalists now.

We need to see where human rights act stops or first ammendment gives way to case law and ask just how much do these laws define what a journalist is? And do we need to think about changing them to define and protect those who practice it or find themselevs doing those accidental acts of journalism.

An international delcalration of journalistic rights and a recognised definition of those that can claim it’s protection.

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