Attorney General blames blogosphere for frenzied media

16 March 2011 by

The Attorney General has warned publishers that the law may be changed to prevent them revealing the names of criminal suspects before they are charged. He also blamed the “massive” and “frenzied”coverage of pre-charge suspects in part on pressure on newspapers from the blogosphere.

Dominic Grieve told Joshua Rozenberg on yesterday’s Law in Action (listen here):

We seem to be living a world where because of competing interests on newspapers, perhaps in part because of the internet, because of the fact they are competing with the blogosphere where people are publishing a great deal of material, national newspapers are keen to give as much background detail to their readers as possible at early stages of criminal investigations. (09:25)

By way of background, the High Court recently found two newspapers guilty of contempt of court for the publishing of an online photograph of a criminal suspect holding a gun. It was the first such case of contempt relating to an online publication. Ominously for bloggers and tweeters, the court warned that “instant news requires instant and effective protection for the integrity of a criminal trial“.

Grieve reminded listeners that “the Contempt of Court Act… doesn’t prevent them from doing that” Rather, “it lays down some pretty clear parameters that what they are doing must not interfere with a fair trial and investigation process“. To that end, see my post (as well as the comments below) on how bloggers and tweeters can avoid finding themselves charged with contempt of court.

He does think there is some areas of serious concern, as “in some cases there is reason to think they have been acting in a way which could be quite dangerous.” And whilst there used to be “a degree of self-restraint” in national newspapers, this “seems to have almost entirely vanished.” Instead there is

frenzied interest and massive coverage… A week later you get the backlash usually from the broadsheet newspapers.

But what to do about it? Whilst the Attorney made clear that he won’t hesitate to prosecute cases if they are worth prosecuting, he also said that he had not yet decided whether to pass any new laws to enforce more responsible reporting. This would happen if  there were “too many instances of media frenzies“.

This strategy is clearly shared by the Ministry of Justice, with Ken Clarke using yesterday’s press conference on libel reform to give a similar warning. In short, behave better or we will force you to do so.

This is a sensible approach, given the implications for freedom of speech of any law involving media censorship. And as to the influence of bloggers and tweeters, whilst many will feel flattered that the Attorney General is paying attention, this is certainly a mixed blessing. Given his stated strategy (and in light of the gun picture case, willingness) to using existing law on contempt  to enforce responsible reporting rather than enacting a new one, this may mean that a particularly unlucky blogger or tweeter may find themselves being made an example of.

As to whether the blogosphere is to blame for newspaper frenzies, the blogosphere itself is as varied as the newspaper industry; probably more so. There are plenty of responsible legal bloggers who are aware of their duties under the contempt of court act. But there are some who are as guilty as newspapers (note the absence of the word “tabloid” – I am less convinced than the Attorney General that broadsheets sit on the sidelines) for stoking media frenzies.

But blaming the bloggers is unlikely to prove a useful defence in court. The journalistic code of conduct has not changed in principle since the rise of the internet, even if behaviour has, and whilst journalists may face more competition from the internet, they have also benefited from its rise and now attract far larger audiences. This may indeed generate more pressure, but as with most new media, standards of behaviour can easily be adapted for the new format.

It seems that the pressure of “online” is being used as an excuse. In any event, it is clear that bloggers and tweeters can no longer draw comfort from being out of the limelight. And with visibility comes responsibility.

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