We all know it was all over the news yesterday, don’t we? Among the chatter and noise, there were a few voices of reason – saying ‘shut up!’, ‘contempt of court‘. I responded to a couple. Is this going to be the case where the social media chatter and speculation and judgements cause a court case to collapse? Is that in anyone’s interests?
That’s all I plan to say on that matter. However in a quieter corner of social media land, I stumbled across an interesting debate on whether or not it is legal to ‘name and shame’ a company online when they’ve not paid their bills or allegedly given bad service. I joined that chatter as it interests me as a journalist – though, I’m no lawyer.
It was a timely debate because only last week such a message about a company in the Bath area was put on Twitter and I flagged up how damaging that can be with the social media outlets we all have access to these days. It’s easy for someone to vent their spleen over such things. Within seconds though, many Tweeters had defended this company and supported it. I felt it right that I re-tweet those comments to redress the balance. For me, the fact that that happened did re-dress the balance. So even if that company had that negative comment on its Twitterfeed on its website, for example, the positive comments would come in behind and cancel out the effect. If the company then went on to deal positively with that complaint (as it should any way), a negative can become a positive.
So back to the debate. Can you post statements online about a company’s bad service, non-payment or any matter about a company or organisation – would that make you subject to legal action? My answer is yes, you can put anything you like online about a company even if it’s defamatory. But like anything, beware the consequences. We do live in a democracy and we should have freedom of speech.
Defamation can be defended. If what you are saying is true and you have paperwork to support your claim, it’s fine. If it’s your experience and then you claim it’s true, ask yourself can the company defend itself against such claims? If it cannot, you are fine. Truth is the best defence – though there are others such as fair comment and public interest. These are harder to prove.
For me it’s about common sense.
Also beware of ‘malicious’ intent – it’s fine to say “I’m having a problem with such and such company, is anyone out there having problems too?’ but it’s not fine to get Twitter followers to continually malign that said company, especially if they have no direct experience of it. What I don’t know is if it’s fine for people to keep re-tweeting negative messages. I don’t think this has been examined in court yet.
People have a very funny view of defamation and libel. It’s the same with invasion of privacy. As journalists we often come across this. Don’t assume that just because you don’t want something said, that it won’t be expressed.
Don't tell tall stories online - stick to the truth....
I once had a recruitment agency in the Swindon area which threatened to take me to court if I mentioned the fact that one of its former employees was taking it to an industrial tribunal. What nonsense! I almost shrieked with laughter.
Industrial tribunals are public events and the press are informed of them – any journalist can go along and report on proceedings. If someone lies in those proceedings (same with a court) as long as a company is approached for a right of reply, a journalist is free to print that lie with any response (contemporaneously). If the company doesn’t like it, that’s tough and completely irrelevant.
I recently had someone talk to me about an inquest and how could she stop a journalist attending as a family member had passed away suddenly and it was traumatic all round. I gently told her that she couldn’t. An inquest is a public event and journalists are informed. It’s often fifty/fifty whether they will turn up or not – but they are perfectly entitled to do so. In this case, as it happens, no journalist attended.
I had another case where I was producing a short film about a Cheltenham-based company which was clearly ripping people off for thousands of pounds. We contacted the boss – remember, you can only defame a person, not a company – and he responded with legal threats.
The day of transmission, he turned up at the studio with a lawyer and sat in a room with us outlining why we were defaming him, his fellow director and therefore his company. It was a long drawn-out meeting but we knew he had no real defence. The pivotal moment came when I said ‘you’re right we are defaming you’. He was silenced by this. I went on to say ‘but there are defences for doing so and one is ‘it’s true’. His solicitor nodded in agreement. The item was aired that night.
The funny thing was, about two months’ later, I had a call from this man’s solicitor. He wanted me to know – and laugh ironically – at the fact that he had been employed to defend this business man’s honour (and I use the term loosely) and had not been paid! Probably never was!
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made? I’d love to know — and what did you do about it?
Make sure that mistake doesn't bite!
I recently read in my local newspaper a letter from a new restaurant owner in Swindon about a review written by a journalist. She’s attended his/her restaurant and had a meal.
The letter said that while there were many positive comments, the reviewer was unreasonable in her criticisms. One was that she’d asked for a vodka mixer and no vodka was available – however the journalist should have been satisfied with the 32 types of wine on offer on the extensive wine list.
What? A journalist doing a review is no different to any other customer – and customers can be hard to please. If I want a gin and tonic or a beer – sod the 32 choices of wine – that’s what I want.
The clue is in the world ‘review’ – it’s an experience, it’s about fulfilling expectations. Some may be fulfilled, others may not.
If this happens to you, bleating about it in the letters page and slagging off the journalist is hardly maintaining a strong relationship with your local press – something you need if you are a local restaurant. Also what do you think as a reader? A reader like me? Well, do I want to go to a restaurant where my choice of beverage is ridiculed? I don’t think so…
So, what should that restauranteur have done?
Taken the positives, learned, maybe invited her back again in six months time…keep the lines of communication open. Turn something negative into something positive – a cliche but true.
A review is very powerful and, unless there’s a bug in your food or the chicken is raw, will almost always put bums on seats. Don’t diss it.
This is not a journalist’s mistake, it’s an opinion based on experience.
So what is a mistake?
Consider the following:
Any journalist who claims never to have made a mistake is from another planet.
All human beings make mistakes and if you are banging out 3,000 words a day for a publication – it will happen.
However if a journalist makes a mistake the consequences can be huge – the power of the written or spoken word cannot be underestimated.
So if you are talking to a journalist and a mistake is subsequently made what do you do?
It’s easy – talk to the journalist about it.
Be sure before you do, that the mistake came from them. (Remember that a mistake in a headline or sub-heading might be done by an editor – and the journalist may have not seen it yet. Equally a mistake in a picture caption can also be done by a third party) But the journalist can help put things right.
There’s nothing more embarrassing than having a difficult conversation with a journalist and then finding out that your press release was inaccurate – or your press office/pr consultant was the source of the mistake.
Also remember that journalists are taught that ‘inaccuracy kills’ – there’s no defence if an inaccuracy leads to defamation. So journalists should be open to those kinds of conversations.
Discuss what the mistake was and how you wish it to be rectified.
For example, a simple mistake like a name spelled incorrectly may be embarrassing but it’s not going to be the end of the world. A small correction or repeat of the story (if it’s short) may be sufficient.
A good friend of mine who’s first name is Spencer was captioned in a photograph as Stella – he’s never forgotten it and neither have I – it’s hilarious.
But if a teacher say, at a school, is charged with abusing a pupil and a journalist names the school or the wrong teacher then that’s a serious mistake and much harder to put right. That gets into the realm of defamation and possibly contempt of court.
For something serious such as the latter, seek advice before talking to the journalist so that you know where you can go with it.
However it’s always advisable to give a newspaper, tv, radio or online publication the opportunity to put things right before getting heavy with lawyers’ letters.
Apologies will be given quite prominently in a serious matter, it’s actually quite rare that a media outlet does nothing when a genuine mistake has been made.
Tip: always talk to the journalist if she/he has made a mistake. Keep the relationship going by avoiding getting heavy. Expect a rational response in putting right that wrong.
(next week, I’ll tell you about a mistake I made and the consequences)
Only a week or so ago I warned about chattering about court cases on social media sites. Mad really, given how much I like to chatter myself.
But there’s chatter – and there’s chatter. Talking about a court case when you’ve little knowledge of how our judicial system works is very dangerous. Doing the same if you are a juror in a court case is a complete no-no.
Gossiping about a court case in this way can lead to a trial collapsing – as it has in this case – and then there may be a re-trial. Or people who are potentially guilty of a crime may get off on a technicality. That’s not in anybody’s public interest. And there’s the waste of time and money by police, court staff, lawyers.
Keep your mouth shut if you are a juror - including online.
And now it’s been proved. A woman jailed for eight months for contempt of court when she had an online conversation with another woman who’d been acquitted earlier in the same trial.
This juror’s chatter, which was about her fellow jurors and their deliberations, has now cost her dear. Gossip gone mad. But even had she not mentioned the case at all, just the mere connection with someone involved in the case might have been enough.
What this case shows to me is that the internet is not immune to UK law.
The judge looked at the motivation and actions of the individual – not at where she expressed her views or comments. The same effect would have come about if she’d published a letter in The News of the World.
The question for me is – how can this be avoided in the future? Can it be avoided?
Is our use of the internet now so powerful and pervasive that we cannot help but interact on line?
The BBC correspondent covering the case did suggest that we might have to consider being more relaxed about our court cases, as they are in America where journalists (everyone in fact) has much more freedom to speak out.
And how many times has this happened and the chatter has never reached a ears of a judge or jury or magistrate? I bet it’s a few, maybe a lot.
I find this whole issue fascinating. But it’s not one I’ll be testing out myself. I don’t fancy spending eight months in jail – or even the four months she’ll actually do if she behaves herself.
Wonder if she’ll tell us about her experience on Facebook? What’s her name again?…..