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Training Matters: A social media legal survival guide for journalists

This week’s guest blogger Dan Lee is a tutor for the NCTJ, journalist and consultant.


No one would deny that Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and any number of comment sites or blogs oil the wheels of friendship, global debate and fraternity. But our wigged friends on the bench and earnest guardians of ethics point to the Deepwater Horizon disaster to argue that oil is dangerous without proper controls.

This guide should help you avoid skidding on any oil slick [that’s enough with the petroleum metaphor, ed].

1. Does the detail you’ve given – such as a person’s job, strange glasses or hairdo – home in on one individual or a small group of individuals? The same might apply for details about a company or organisation. Okay if you’re saying something inoffensive, but, otherwise, take extra care. Remember, if your followers put your tweet or Facebook posting together with more information they are getting from other social networks or media organisations, this might be enough to put together a jigsaw picture of an identifiable individual. If that is the case, you’re still in trouble. For example, a BBC Newsnight report in 2012 contained an allegation that an unnamed Tory had raped a resident of a children’s home. Lord McAlpine was separately widely – incorrectly – named on the internet as the man responsible for the abuse. The BBC had to pay damages.

2. Court case or investigations ongoing? Be very careful. In 2013 Peaches Geldof had to apologise for revealing the names of two women whose babies were abused. Revealing the identity of a victim or alleged victim of a sexual offence is itself an offence. And remember that there are also strict rules about identifying children in many legal cases, courts can add more restrictions and giving your opinion on an ongoing case is a complete no no. You’ll probably be in contempt of court, and that can be an unpleasant and expensive place to be.

3. Attacking someone or saying something that could be seen as a threat or an intimidation? Be sure you can prove the facts and don’t be silly. The Lord McAlpine story illustrates this and there are plenty of other cases. In 2010 a man was found guilty of sending a menacing tweet threatening to blow up an airport. He later won an appeal, but the case shows how silly comments can be misinterpreted. The meaning of your statements will be looked at against the background of other people’s past and present comments.

4. Revealing anything personal, private or that you do not have permission to reproduce? A picture, perhaps? This might be a breach of privacy, confidentiality or possibly copyright. Unless you can prove what you’ve published is strongly in the public interest, for example revealing a crime, health and safety issues or preventing the public being misled about something serious, don’t publish without the permission of the person or organisation concerned.

5. Be fair. Be transparent about your motives, especially if you are being paid for your contribution or if you have some sort of interest in the story covered in, for example, your tweet. Otherwise, you may be accused of being under hand. Deal with any complaint straight away – courts and regulators will take account of your efforts to correct a mistake or lapse of judgment. People working in the media or public life eg politicians, may face stricter penalties than general members of the public.

Dan will be teaching a masterclass in social media: keeping it legal and ethical, at the NCTJ offices in Essex on 26 March. To find out more about using social media channels in the newsroom, click here to book your place.