Test your online journalism law: 5 – witness to a fatal beating

Every day this week I have been publishing an example of a legal dilemma that might face a journalism student (why? Read my previous post on students being publishers, and the responsibilities that come with that). I can’t promise a ‘right answer’ at the end of the week – but I hope you can comment on what a student publisher might do – and why.

Case 5: Your friend witnesses a fatal beating

This isn’t a particularly nice story. Your source tells you that last night she saw a man being beaten so badly that he died afterwards.

You ask questions about where the attack took place, the victim, the attackers, and what was said and done during the attack.

You decide to write a story from what she has told you.

The questions

  1. What are the legal issues here – and what tests need to be met for them to be an issue?
  2. What defence(s) could you mount?
  3. How likely is it that legal action would result?
  4. Would you publish – and why?

1 thought on “Test your online journalism law: 5 – witness to a fatal beating

  1. Paul Bradshaw Post author

    ‘Answers’ as promised:
    1. The legal issues here are contempt of court again, and libel. I explored contempt in the 3rd post in this series. In that case, the issue was whether the case was closed: https://onlinejournalismblog.com/2013/11/20/contempt-of-court-online-journalism-case-magistrate-criticism/
    In this case, however, the issue is whether a case is open: has someone been charged? Are police investigating. If this is indeed a murder then the police should know about it.
    2. You need to check with police if they have charged anyone (sometimes they will say someone is ‘helping with enquiries’ – assume it means the same thing) – if so, contempt laws come into effect and you need to be careful what you report. If they haven’t been charged, you need to be careful about defamation and libel – can you prove what you are reporting? (A witness statement is merely their word against someone else’s). Some guidance on considerations in contempt is available here: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/wire/8411
    3. Contempt is taken very seriously, and defence lawyers will be looking for anything that might be prejudicial, so there’s a decent likelihood you might face legal action.
    4. Don’t publish until you’ve spoken to the police. Apart from anything else, a story about a fatal beating which does not include any information from police is frustrating for a reader, and poor journalism.


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