As every trained journalist knows, you can report whatever you like from a court case as long as it is “fair, accurate and contemporaneous“.
It doesn’t even matter if what is said is false – absolute privilege is a complete bar to any nasty letters from Carter Ruck or any other libel lawyers.
To have that privilege your report must be published at the “earliest opportunity” – while the trial is happening, or just after, not three weeks later.
The media law bible McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists says: “For all practical purposes this means publication in the first issue of the paper following the hearing, or while the hearing in proceeding.
It continues: “An evening paper might begin reporting a case in its early editions, continue to add to its report as later editions appear, and perhaps conclude it the following day.”
But in a 24/7 media age, what is contemporaneous? Increasingly, newspapers feel the need to file to only one deadline: now, online.
In fairness to MacNae’s expert editors, this is from the 18th edition published in 2005 and the newer book is better with online matters and the forthcoming edition even better. But the advice it gives on being contemporaneous is from another age: hardly any evening papers publish more than one edition, and most of them are essentially morning papers now anyway, printed over night to save money and time.
So surely “at the earliest opportunity” is now. It’s as soon as the reporter has gathered his or her thoughts, deciphered the notebook scribblings, wrote the story and emailed it or phoned it in to the newsdesk.
Judges are not the most web-savvy people (see here), so for time being the next day’s edition will be enough. But how long before the senior judges and the Ministry of Justice wake up to the fact that the whole issue of “earliest opportunity” has changed?
The Society of Editors is already warning that the Contempt of Court laws need to be shaken up to cope with multi-media realities. So how long before the powers that be take court reporting law into the 21st century?
Thanks to Alison at the Liverpool Daily Post for kicking off the debate on Twitter today. She asked whether newspapers whould break exclusive court reports online, to which I ask another question: why not?