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Trainee reporters face extra law exams due to flood of legislation

Law exams for journalism trainees may soon have to be split into two stages because of an avalanche of new legislation affecting the press, tutors and lecturers fear.

The Queen’s Speech in May proposed 50 new Bills to be dealt by Parliament – many of them including offences which could unwittingly be committed by newspapers and broadcasters and their journalists.

The warning came from Walter Greenwood, chairman of the National Council for the Training of Journalists’ law board.

  • Walter
  • He told lecturers and examiners gathered at the Law Society for the launch of the latest McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists: “There can be few countries in the western world that have so many legal regulations on reporting the courts, although it is not merely court reporting that is involved here.

    “In matters of newspaper law it is more of a constant drip of legislation continuing year after year and gradually eroding the freedom to report.”

    He said that Jack Straw, when Home Secretary, had promised that the media would be consulted when legislative proposals containing such restrictions were being considered – but he left the Home Office in 2001, since when his pledge had been forgotten.

    He added: “In addition, we have fresh laws such as the new powers to ban the identification of witnesses, and the need to challenge courts who get witness anonymity wrong, and the new regulations which emphasise the perils of reporting trial proceedings in the absence of the jury now that a newspaper can be landed with vast costs if a trial is abandoned.

    “One could go on,” he said. “Where is it going to end? How much more law can we pack into the programme of study?

    “As almost every year the range of reporting law widens yet further, can young journalists be required to absorb it all?

    “As it is already, few, if any, journalism courses have the time to cover all the chapters in McNae and no NCTJ exam can hope to examine every facet of law applying to news-gathering and to publication.

    “We expect people coming into journalism to remember them, often in some detail, if they are to challenge misguided reporting restrictions.”

    The problem was made worse because the majority of trainees had little experience of writing court stories which would put those laws into perspective – they were often learning the theory without knowledge of the practice.

    He said: “I believe – and this is purely a personal opinion – that the time will come when some newspaper law will have to be studied at an early stage and some much later, when young journalists in general, and not just the bright stars, have acquired the capacity to understand the effect of the law in particular stories.

    “At our law board meeting in October we will be taking a look at the possibility of a two-stage qualification, to include some updating on new law.”