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Training Matters: Updating the media law ‘bible’

Mike Dodd, co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists 22nd edition, discusses the latest contribution to the industry’s media law ‘bible’.

Mike is legal editor at the Press Association and member of the NCTJ media law examinations board. He is a qualified lawyer with nearly 40 years’ experience as a working journalist.

Showing that journalists are now in a new legal and ethical climate was a primary aim as Mark Hanna and I prepared the latest edition of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

Until recently we had regarded the criminal law as being mainly beyond the remit of the book – the only ways in which it was clear that journalists might break the law while working would be if they unwittingly breached reporting restrictions, or fell foul of controversially restrictive provision in Officials Secrets Acts or counter-terrorism law.

But in recent years journalists have faced increased risks of being accused of encouraging misconduct in public office by persuading officials such as police or army officers, or civil servants, to give them information.

They now also face the risk of prosecution under the Bribery Act if they pay a source for material, even if the payment is made afterwards.

The training of all journalists now needs to include instructions that ‘audit trail’ records need to be kept of why an action which could prove controversial – for example, paying a source or filming undercover – was justified in the particular circumstances.

In the event of a complaint to a regulator or the police, an editor or freelance must be able to prove he or she had a ‘reasonable belief’ that what was done was justifiable as being in the public interest. Evidence of this ‘reasonable belief’ also protects journalists in data protection law and – as regards what is published – when using the new ‘public interest’ defence in libel law.

Technology has also greatly complicated the work of journalists, and legislation intended to deal with its effects, which started as a trickle and is now becoming a full-blown stream, presents serious issues – and risks – for reporters and editors – the nifty tricks which some can perform with computers, tablets, smart phones and various other bits of paraphernalia present serious risks that journalists might find themselves on the wrong side of the law, for example because they have hacked someone’s mobile phone messages, or got into their e-mails.

All this – which led us to put a new chapter into the latest edition – coupled with the fall-out from the Leveson Inquiry, and the reforms of the libel laws introduced in the Defamation Act 2013, which came into effect on January 1 this year, meant that Mark and I faced a major job in our continuous endeavours to ensure that the new edition of McNae’s was aimed not merely at equipping trainees and students for their media law examinations, but also at giving practical and sensible advice on how to stay on the right side of the law, and the regulators.

To help trainee journalists –and trainers and tutors – we have updated case studies throughout the book to illustrate the practical realities, in the hope and belief that people learn as much from the example of others as they do from simple statements of fact or expressions of opinion.

We are now finalising additional material and updates for the book’s website, where more case studies will be included.

The new edition of McNae’s Essential Media Law for Journalists is available to purchase from the NCTJ shop.