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Reporting restrictions: who can access them?

As reported on the main site, and as I commented previously on this blog, reporting restrictions which – if broken – would contravene the British Contempt of Court Act, seem increasingly irrelevant.

My own experiences in trying to access the reporting restrictions are perhaps a case in point. Since posting the earlier blog item on the Baby P case, we have had comments posted to this blog which we immediately suspected would contravene the reporting restrictions.

I decided to ring the Old Bailey to find out what they were. Firstly, being put through to the press room by error led to a bizarre encounter with someone (a maverick journalist?) who, extremely rudely, told me ‘you don’t pay’ so ‘why should I send you them to you’, suggesting that I put £50 in an envelope to access them.

His identity remains a mystery (he told me he had forgotten his name before hanging up). I then called the correct department who asked me to send my request by fax. After another couple of stages in which I had to confirm my status as a journalist, I finally accessed the material.

Now I know, for certain, that many of the blog comments we deleted could have seen us prosecuted under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, had we published them. The restrictions themselves forbid me to go into anymore detail than that.

The point here is that bloggers who write about Baby P have no way of accessing the reporting restrictions and therefore no way of knowing whether comments are libellous in breach of the Contempt of Court Act, or not.

When I asked the executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, about educating the general public about Contempt of Court he did not consider it a priority, suggesting that any policing of the internet was something of a lost cause.

But, nevertheless, before (that’s if they do) reforms come in, we have a tricky predicament. Surely, as an intermediary measure there’s a need for anonymised reporting restrictions which would explain to bloggers, social network users and citizen journalists why they can’t print certain details.

After all, journalists – on the whole – understand the need for protection of fair trials. Isn’t it time to explain things better to untrained online publishers?

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  • dave

    what light would the Contempt Of Court Act shed on libel? Other than that, agree. Courts are not well geared up for informing the general public and there is little easy to understand information about on restrictions and the reasons for them.

  • http://www.journalism.co.uk Judith Townend

    Yes, I worded that ambiguously, although I do think current web reporting on social networks, blogs etc. has widespread implications for Defamation law too.

    Nonetheless, I’ll amend it so it’s clear: Breaching reporting restrictions would not a question of libel – it would be in Contempt of Court.

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