The Only Way is Ethics: Whose media laws should a British journo follow?

In the wake of events such as Paris due diligence is the order of the day

Will Gore
Sunday 22 November 2015 19:02
Situations such the Paris attacks call for extra responsibility from reporters
Situations such the Paris attacks call for extra responsibility from reporters

It is a ghastly truth that newspapers come into their own when something terrible has happened. The horrors witnessed in Paris just over a week ago resulted in some excellent reporting and analysis. There have been some exceptions – though, given the confused nature of the situation, that is perhaps inevitable.

Information has come fast but fitfully; and, at times, accounts have been contradictory – even from the French authorities. Details about the dead and the injured have emerged from official sources, individuals caught up in the attacks and from third parties. One account, reported widely across the British media, included what appeared to be private information about the health of a woman who had been injured and traumatised and was receiving treatment in hospital. The particulars seemed to have been provided by a friend but there was no indication that she was revealing them with the consent of the wounded woman. An article on our website that included the information was taken down swiftly after a reader queried it.

In normal circumstances I doubt that report would ever have been published; but it highlights the need for extra caution when so much material is emerging from disparate quarters. More than ever, due diligence is the order of the day.

In the context of attacks in Paris, there is an additional consideration, which is the different French and British attitudes towards – and laws relating to – privacy. In theory, at least, legal protection against media “intrusion” is tougher in France than it is here, although there are plenty of magazines on the other side of the Channel that might offer evidence to the contrary (as the Duchess of Cambridge would perhaps agree).

In particular, there are circumstances in French law where rights to privacy extend beyond death, if the deceased’s next of kin can show genuine loss or harm as a consequence of publication. Image rights are also more tightly protected (though a case in this country last week suggested we may be on the road to something similar here).

But the fundamental point is: should British publications seek to adhere to the French legal code as well as to the laws of this country? In the age of the internet, it is conceivable that a website based here, even if not a print publication, could face a lawsuit in Paris. This goes to the heart of wider debates about the harmonisation of European law – heck, why not go global even?

For now, media here will continue to work to the standards set by Britain’s laws and courts. However, just as terrorism knows no borders, nor does the web; and, for journalists, that doesn’t always make things straightforward.

Moments to remember

Thursday’s back page carried a report of Andy Murray’s defeat (OK, thrashing) at the hands of Rafa Nadal in the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals. Yet, despite Nadal being on resurgent form, we chose to illustrate the piece with two pictures of Murray: first, stretching in vain to make a return; second, cutting his hair courtside.

One reader felt we should have shown Nadal in full flight instead: it would have offered balance and been more appropriate, she said. In the pantheon of gurning tennis players, it is a toss-up as to which our readers would most like to see (or avoid). But to fans of the latter, apologies. As for Murray, it is the haircut, rather than the defeat that may remain memorable. Though neither made him more obviously photogenic.

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