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A prickly issue

By Steven | November 19, 2009

Cactus Kate is up in arms about some editorial guidelines she says APN management have been circulating to reporters, including those at the NZ Herald.

Her most alarming claim by far is that:

The thrust is all to do with NO budget allocated for legal action or defence so the editors have basically been told not to run stories that could cause legal action or are risky in other ways.

This doesn’t seem to have been part of the leaked memo. Herald editor Tim Murphy adamantly denies it. Where did it come from? CK says:

I was informed of this specific edict to Editors that was made some months ago in conjunction with circulation of that which I further describe below.

Seems a bit vague, but I guess she’s got to protect her source. (Or sources? Did they all say this? Did they have it first hand? Who from?)

Now, I have no inside knowledge and have no idea what the truth is. But it doesn’t strike me as very likely. A directive from management to keep legal costs down in hard times, together with a reminder of some key bits of media law advice? Sure. It’s probably going on in many media organisations. But an order to cut the budget to zero? What if they get a legal threat after something’s published? Are they supposed to ignore it? What if they slip up? Defamation threats often emerge from stories that no-one had any idea were dangerous. It’s part of the business. Who knew there were two Artemus Joneses?

It must be obvious to any major media organisation that they can’t operate on a zero legal budget.

As for the memo itself, call me a Russellite if you will, but I can’t see anything in the guidelines that isn’t entirely standard. Even senior journalists can do with a reminder about it from time to time. CK wants to know why it was being circulated at that particular time. I don’t know. Maybe they made some costly mistakes and wanted to minimise the chances they would happen again. Maybe they were too cheap to run some training this year. Maybe someone thought it was a good pre-emptive cost strategy. None of the reasons I can think of seem particularly worrying.

Still, there has been some handwringing about this paragraph:

There are categories of people who are more inclined to sue if they are the subject of adverse publications, so particular care should be taken in reporting allegations of misconduct against lawyers, doctors, judges, other professionals, politicians, critics and wealthy businessmen/women.

Rob Hosking says he’s never heard any of his bosses give this advice. NBR’s David Cohen wonders:

Huh? Is it possible that one of the region’s media giants — and by extension its major New Zealand title — is observing different journalistic standards depending on the choice of news subject?

This strikes me as a bit naive. Isn’t it just common sense to take particular care when you know someone’s likely to sue you?

That doesn’t mean the story shouldn’t be written, and the memo doesn’t seem to suggest that. It does mean that a bit more care might be taken over key passages to ensure that an honest opinion defence is available, for example, or the story might be held for a day for a call to be returned to strengthen a qualified privilege defence.

For what it’s worth, in Media Minefield I include exactly this advice, recommending particular care when writing about people most likely to sue:

politicians, business people, lawyers, celebrities, sports stars, the police, and journalists.

Topics: Defamation, Media ethics | No Comments »


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