With the very rapid growth of online media, all of a sudden the printed word has found a natural bedfellow which has speeded up the reporting process and spread the finely crafted words of journalists all around the world. Instantaneously.
As with any new and rapid development, this has created several issues around the way that online news is reported – the growth in “citizen journailsm”, the integration of film, sound and text, the 24-news culture, to name just a few.
These changes have not always been for the better though and reporters have, at times, resisted such change, seeing it more as an exercise in cost cutting rather than integration and modernisation.
Still, the reporting itself – no matter the media – should not be of concern, as long as it continues to be guided by the principles of the traditional printed word – fair and accurate.
One concern is about the length of time that news stories are now available within the public domain. That is to say, news stories are now always available to be found through the routine use of any decent search engine.
For many, mostly those who have something to hide, the fact that ‘Googling’ someone may mean that information from their past can easily be found years down the line, is unacceptable.
Most publications are receiving requests asking for stories to be removed about individuals. However, many are refusing to do so, citing it as ‘a piece of history’ that should not be tampered with.
“We have rules on how we handle those records, if we didn’t we could potentially alter history,” says Steve Dyson, editor of the Birmingham Mail. “But how far can we take that? What sort of precedence are we setting if we take down a story of a trial or tribunal? What happens the next time someone else wants something taken off and then the time after that? What happens if that person then does the same thing again or something more serious? I feel very sternly on this, that with official meetings, court cases, tribunals and events, we should not tamper with our history.”
Dyson continues to say that he does concede that if a case is appealed or a story takes a twist, then he would ensure that news running online would be updated to explain the developments of the situation.
David Dinsmore, editor of The Scottish Sun, believes that online archived news should be treated in the same manner as cuttings from a newspaper, held in storage for future reference. “I don’t see any reason to remove historical articles online because it is a matter of record. You can find the cuttings of stories by just going to the library, they’ve always been there, it’s just a lot easier to find them online,” Dinsmore says.
He adds that the only difference with online is that it is a more easily accessible public platform, but doesn’t see why that should make any difference in how news online is policed.
“It would be a huge clamp on the freedom of the press if you were to place a statute of limitations on news. We’re all about freedom of information, so why would you put in legislation limitations? That is real police state stuff.”
Dyson says he does not believe that there are enough laws in place to fully protect editors from prosecution over online news and says that at a recent forum for editors in London, attended by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, the topic arose that software has been developed to browse search engines, using key words to find news which the user can then use to prosecute publications. Apparently Straw was so incensed by this news that he has vowed to review the law covering the matter.
In terms of the legal ramifications for the use of news online, Campbell Deane, a partner at solicitors Bannatyne Kirkwood France – a firm specialising in media law – says that the decision over the removal of news online is down to the editor of a publication.
However, he believes a more significant legal issue is the right to privacy which is afforded by UK citizens by law and how those rules have been altered since the introduction of online news reporting.
These could be especially harmful to ‘Red Top’ tabloids, he says.
“The limitation period for raising an action in respect of privacy as a personal injury action would be three years,” Deane explains.
“Look at the Max Mosley story and consider his privacy, particularly in relation to Mr Justice Eadie who, in November of last year, said that what goes on in a man’s home is private. So any sexual encounter whether paid for or not, is a private matter. Now, I’m sure if you went through the News of the World’s archive – or any paper’s archive – over a period of three years then there will be many stories there from many individuals who would have a right of action which the law now affords them where previously it wouldn’t have.”
Local newspapers will also need to be wary of changes through online news delivery, as Deane highlights. If a newspaper were to report a story, it could only be sued within the country that story was published. Now, with online, news is international and can be heard in the court of any country that the story has been downloaded.
Also, if heard in London, the fees for such a case could be astronomical for a local paper. “Local newspapers really need to be careful, no matter what they write. What used to be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers is now there forever,” he concludes.