Tuesday, 17 November 2009

BBC needs good lawyers

LET’s hope that the BBC had its best team of lawyers on duty on Monday (November 16) when its early evening main news bulletin broke every rule in the book.
Three of its first four items grossly overstepped the guidelines to media outlets and ran roughshod over every basic principle of media law.
Fist up was the arrest of a man, who had already been charged with five rapes and six indecent assaults.
This was expanded to a long piece about a police investigation going back 19 years and featuring a violent and predatory criminal labelled the Night Stalker.
The law says that when someone has been arrested then the media is restricted to basic information like the name of the accused and the alleged offences. The idea is that any further detail could prejudice a fair trial. Once charges have been laid the restrictions are even tighter.
It is natural for the police to go into “we’ve got our man” mode after such a long investigation, but the media is supposed to be more circumspect than this.
Not only did the BBC imply that the man was guilty, it also ran the risk of giving the accused a possible defence at any subsequent trial that the jury and witnesses had been unduly swayed by the report.
For the BBC to repeat the history and scope of the inquiry, and use words like “horrific” attacks, as it did, is a dreadful abuse of the system.
The next report was an allegation from a soldier who had been convicted by court martial of abusing Iraqi prisoners, that his commanding officer was gung-ho in attitude and somehow to blame for what went wrong.
The commanding officer named by the BBC would have had very good grounds for a libel action, remembering of course that under British law it is the media who have to prove statements are true. How could they possibly justify such a damning claim?
Similarly a report on the re-selection of South West Norfolk Tory prospective parliamentary candidate, Liz Truss, cheerfully stated as fact that she had had an affair with a named Tory MP. If he felt so inclined he could probably take the BBC to the cleaners.
The news reporter said that the affair was documented on the Internet. But legitimate news outlets like the BBC surely cannot rely on the Internet to prove stories to be true. At the very least this should have been an alleged affair.
Whether any of these stories had been run past the lawyers we shall never know. Perhaps the BBC, fortified by the routine flouting of legal restrictions by Crimewatch, thinks it is immune to guidelines the rest of the media has to obey.
But quite apart from the risks that the BBC ran of legal action against itself, it must have had anyone interested in the training of journalists and the upholding of the laws of defamation and contempt of court tearing their hair out.

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