So where does the buck stop?

It’s not often I hear something that shocks me but it happened this week: I was told that a member of a southern weekly newspaper’s digital team is facing a contempt charge for uploading a court case to the website.
The background, as I understand it, is that the juvenille defendant could, allegedly, be identified from the information contained in the website-published story. So, at the urgings of local police, the CPS has brought a charge against the individual who uploaded it to the newspaper’s online site and thereby effectively ‘published’ it.

I don’t know many details of the case but it seems to me that the implications of this are far-reaching and very worrying.
From what I know of newspapers being in contempt (I’ve worked on two where it got further than the judge issuing a stern ‘don’t do it again‘ but, of course, there are numerous cases in the archives of Press Gazette and Hold the Front Page) it is always the editor or publisher of the paper who is in the crosshairs.
That means not the reporter who wrote it, not the news editor who approved/rewrote it, not designer who placed it on the page or the the sub who checked it, and not the revision sub who rechecked it. And certainly not the final link in the chain – the inky who scanned throught the first smudged copy that came off the press to check for pagination errors.

I mentioned this case to an editor friend who was genuinely shocked the CPS had chosen to go after an individual, rather than the publisher or the editor. Because in his view (in most editors’ views I would imagine) he is responsible for the contents of his brand’s websites just as he are for the print newspaper, or any other editorial publication his newsroom produces. And while he’s not in any hurry to go to court for a junior reporter’s error, he believes it comes with the territory.

I wonder if this case will actually go ahead. Certainly one newspaper law expert I spoke to thought it likely the prosecution would fall over before it got to court, but even that would be a significant decision. With many papers now either allowing or actively working towards letting reporters publish their work direct to the web, through their blogs or otherwise, it throws up fairly pressing questions about the where and how checks for accuracy and legal issues are performed. It also poses all sorts of responsibility and accountability (and even legal insurance?) issues.

So, while it’s interesting to debate the vexed questions of paywalls v pay-per-click, Bloggers v Newspapers, or even whether you really would read your Daily News via a Kindle, perhaps we journalists need to take some time to consider what would happen if this did establish a case law.
Because it’s not just the reporters working for major news companies that could be affected – it could have ramifications for the burgeoning independent hyper-local set-ups, news agencies, bloggers et al.
As I say, not often I hear something that shocks me, but this case does. How about you?

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About Alison Gow

I'm a journalist, particularly interested in story-telling, networks and digital innovation.
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