Book Review: “Online Law for Journalists” by Cleland Thom – Kirsten Sjøvoll

22 07 2016

cleland-thom-book-290x300This is a book aimed not at lawyers but at journalists writing in the Internet age. The author, Cleland Thom, is a consultant and trainer in media and information law and he has used this background to provide a clear and concise guide which journalists and non-lawyers are likely to find a useful overview of an area of law that is fraught with complexities and ambiguities.

Journalism in the digital age throws up a whole host of issues and the law is, to a large extent, only starting to play catch-up. Never before has journalistic content been capable of reaching such global audiences. Moreover, with the advent of Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere, the range of individuals who may be considered “journalists” is wider than ever. All of this means that the traditional means by which the law regulates journalistic content risks become otiose as judges and lawyers struggle to understand and control the means by which, for example, libellous statements go “viral” or posts on social media risk contempt of court.

As the author points out, with all of this there is a risk that the law over-regulates and places undue restrictions on free speech and, in his view, journalists already face significant restrictions on what they may publish. It is against that backdrop that the book examines the impact of the Internet on the current law.

The book covers all major areas of media law relevant to journalists from defamation to contempt of court, as well as privacy concerns, data protection, and online “trolling” and harassment.

Another area touched upon is the impact of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 on the protection of journalistic sources. The use of national security legislation to spy on journalists is arguably one of the greatest threats to free speech of the modern age. The European Court of Human Rights recently delivered a damning judgment in Zakharov v Russia [2015] ECHR 1065) (see Inforrm’s post here)  holding that the Russian state’s mass surveillance scheme was an unlawful interference with the Applicant’s Article 10 rights and is set to consider the issue again in a case brought by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism with interventions from several major media organisations.

While the author offers some practical tips for journalists to avoid detection, there is a real risk that sources will be identified by the state simply by the monitoring of “meta data”. In an age of global journalism, it is difficult to see how contact with sources could take place wholly offline and the chilling effect on investigative journalism unpopular with the state is likely to be significant if the powers remain as proposed in the Investigatory Powers Bill.

The law is still in its online infancy and it is likely that test cases will need to be brought to more clearly determine its boundaries. In the meantime, this book offers a succinct starting point for anyone publishing online who wants to know if they are about to run into a legal firewall.

Online Law for Journalists, Cleland Thom, Paperback £14.95, Kindle £9.99

Kirsten Sjøvoll is a member of Matrix Chambers and specialises in media and information law.


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