‘Journalists probably deal with more law than anyone else – including lawyers’

25 years ago I thought I had left the law behind, writes media law consultant David Banks in the latest post in the ‘If I knew then what I know now’ series.

Land law, equity & trusts and contract had conspired to dampen my enthusiasm for the law, so when I completed my degree at Liverpool Poly (as was), I did not follow my fellow graduates to the Inns of Court or law college.

But what to do, what to do?

I went to the students union careers advisory service seeking inspiration and they had me fill in what was called a ‘cascade form’ – a huge, multiple choice, box-ticking exercise. The form was fed into a computer which read the pattern of the boxes and came up with a suggested list of careers based on my answers.

Top of the list – air steward (based apparently on answers that I liked travelling and had a French O-level)

Second on the list – journalist. Well, I thought, airline hospitality is probably not for me, so journalism it was. I would love to say I wanted to be a hack from the very moment I smelt newsprint, but the sad truth is I fell into it for want of a better offer.

So, it would seem, my law degree was wasted now that I had embarked on a career in newspapers. How wrong I was, and had I known how mired in law I would become for the rest of my working life, I might have taken a few more notes in the lectures on tort, English legal system, criminal law and evidence. What small knowledge I did amass in my three years has proved invaluable ever since.

You see, after 25 years in newspapers, I believe that a working journalist in the UK probably deals with more law in a day than pretty much any other profession, and I dare to include lawyers in that as well.

A reporter’s day can involve negotiating the intricacies of libel, contempt of court, magistrates court reporting restrictions, sexual offence anonymity, anonymity for juveniles, freedom of information, copyright, privacy and confidentiality, regulation of investigatory powers, bribery laws and ethical codes as well. And that is just for the general jobbing reporter. If you work in some of the more specialised areas of the newsroom, such as business, a whole new world of legal threats looms.

And then there is court reporting itself, which in a way is the legally safest place to be if you are a journalist. Provided your report is fair, accurate and contemporaneous, the threat of a libel action – ever-present at almost all other times – vanishes thanks to the defence of absolute privilege.

However, in the court there are myriad laws to be negotiated that only apply there. Sometimes just getting in, especially to youth court, can be a problem, with staff deciding – on a whim it would seem because there is no legal basis – that you aren’t allowed in.

Once in, all too often magistrates (though judges seem less willing) will make erroneous anonymity orders giving defendants protection they do not deserve and have no legal right to expect.

All too often it falls to the reporter in court to challenge these orders and maintain open reporting of the courts – because no-one else there will.

So if I knew back in 1983, when I began that law degree, what I know now after 25 years as a journalist, I would have studied harder the bits that still serve me well now – tort, legal system, crime, evidence, human rights.

Land law, contract and trusts would be even further down the list.

David Banks is a journalist, media law trainer and consultant. He is co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.