Print, privacy, the paparazzi and prosecution

- Media Law for Journalists. First Edition - Media Freedom under the Human Rights Act. First Edition

May 25, 2007

Whether the result of journalistic navel-gazing or the intrinsic importance of the specialism, few areas of the wider legal discipline enjoy a profile in the press quite as high as that of media law. Recent months have witnessed a series of pertinent stories: the prosecution of tabloid journalists for unlawful interception of voicemail; paparazzi intrusion on the privacy of Kate Middleton and others; regulatory intervention to close down the educational content provided online by the BBC, and many more. The authors of both these books speak to this interest, and in different ways seek to orient the future practice of journalism and media law. Each book is valuable in its niche.

In Media Law for Journalists, Ursula Smartt seeks to aid the training of journalists on how to practise lawfully. The book is at least a refreshing complement to more venerable textbooks. Indeed, being both reflective and accessible, it is arguably a better first resort for aspirant hacks. In her presentation of the substantive law, the author adopts a frequent use of illustration alongside more extended case studies. This allegorical approach conveys the underlying message very effectively. The book also offers concise overviews of the legal and regulatory systems operating in the UK.

There are some limitations. While it professes a wide intended readership, the text is clearly oriented towards the student market. In terms of substantive law, it emphasises only the key rules of the core areas of the specialism: contempt, defamation, privacy, intellectual property, and child-related regulations. There can be room for little else in a packed syllabus. The result is that the book is insufficiently comprehensive to be of regular instructive value to practising journalists. More importantly, the structure of the book is a little quixotic. For instance, the sections on institutions and procedures are in places interspersed unhelpfully with the consideration of substantive law. Moreover, a chapter on "privacy and human rights" ranges broadly across the emergence of a tort of privacy, wider developments in the law of confidence, official secrets legislation, the background to the introduction of the Human Rights Act, and freedom of information. Of course, these matters are related, but the laws serve distinct purposes and should be presented independently. Such issues, which do not impinge overmuch on the book's utility, will no doubt be addressed in the preparation of a second edition of a text that deserves widespread adoption.

The aim of Media Freedom under the Human Rights Act is somewhat different. It is focused on the deeper policy questions regarding what the law that regulates media content in the Human Rights Act era is and should be. It also seeks to inform the policy debate on the needs of freedom of expression in the media context in a democratic state. It is necessary reading for all students of media law.

After scene-setting with the observation that British law has tended historically to accord expression rights to individuals and not (media) organisations, the book offers a detailed discussion of both the treatment of media freedom by the Strasbourg court in its application of Article 10 ECHR, and the legal context now afforded by the Human Rights Act. It then focuses on aspects of five substantive areas of law and/or regulation that facilitate or corral media freedom. These are the administration of justice, indecency and the giving of religious and racial offence to others, privacy, intellectual property and political speech. In each, the common law and wider background approach to the matter in question are traced before the new rights context is considered.

The authors outline concerns at the nature of some recent developments in media-related rights jurisprudence, without proselytising freedom of expression over all other considerations. They also indicate a number of areas in which no suitable case has yet arisen to allow challenge to pre-existing rules. The argument offered, while sometimes contestable, is invariably persuasive and informed. For balance, one criticism: the book is in places unnecessarily prolix, and as such can prove draining for some students adopting it as a primary text. And it does not always offer the basic framework students need to understand the more sophisticated discussion entered. Allied with a strong set of background lectures or a more introductory textbook, however, the book provides fodder for thoughtful and provocative discussion.

Media Law for Journalists. First Edition

Author - Ursula Smartt
Publisher - Sage
Pages - 326
Price - £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 9781412908467 and 08474

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