Serving professional journalism since 1912

Magazine of the Chartered Institute of Journalists

UK journalism law’s ‘bible’ reaches its 25th edition in an age of less media freedom than its first.

This remarkable journalism law text book first appeared in 1954 and was written by the late Leonard McNae, who was editor of the Press Association’s Special Reporting Service.

The 25th edition has been co-written by the Press Association’s retiring legal editor Mike Dodd and Mark Hanna who this year has also retired from his position as Senior Lecturer at Sheffield University and is now Emeritus Fellow.

In the last 66 years it would be remarkable for there to be any professional journalist in the United Kingdom of any generation who has not had to read McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

And it is both disturbing and equally remarkable that in a supposedly democratic society with traditions of a free press during this period the range of laws controlling and limiting that media freedom have grown as much as the size of the book.

Consider the tenth edition published in 1988, then edited by Walter Greenwood and Tom Welsh.

Cover of 10th edition of McNae's Essential Law for Journalists published 1988.

This was the year I had successfully campaigned for the right to appeal Crown Court reporting restrictions and secret hearings after taking the UK to Strasbourg.

Then there was no recognised media right to privacy law. In fact, that edition’s chapter 30 on privacy ran to only two pages in length.

There were thousands of more journalists employed by weekly, regional and national news publishers. There were millions more newspaper readers.

There was no Internet as we know it now thirty two years ago. And the 10th edition comprised a total of only 209 pages.

In 2020, the 25th edition needs 529 pages and a companion website hosting three additional chapters 38 to 40 on ‘The incitment of hate’, ‘Scots Law’, and ‘Terrorism and the effect of counter-terrorism law’.

Add another 48 pages making a total of 577 pages.

Chapter 27 on Privacy runs to 12 pages, but in reality privacy law related concepts and legal issues permeate nearly every other chapter.

Edition 25 is much more than twice the reading now required compared to Edition 10.

There is more than twice the number and complexity of media laws that need to be understood and navigated.

Since 1954, most professional journalists are now graduating and more than half have postgraduate degrees. They need to be.

Cover of 5th Edition of Essential Law for Journalists
Cover of 5th Edition of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists.

It is rather sobering reading Tom Welsh and Walter Greenwood’s preface in 1988 and comparing it to that of Mike Dodd and Mark Hanna in the year 2020.

Then Welsh and Greenwood talked of low-points and ‘the unprecedented scale of the attempts by government to restrict the media over the operations of the security services, and the rapid development of the laws which enabled these attempts to achieve considerable success.’

They highlighted and warned of tricks by government and the rich and powerful to find loopholes to muzzle and silence scrutiny, accountability and reduce open justice.

In 2020 there is not much difference. Dodd and Hanna write: ‘It is therefore depressing for us, as McNae’s authors, and of concern to many journalists and lawyers, that in the two years since the previous edition the number of open court hearings in England and Wales has been drastically reduced.’

This has been brought about by the ‘single justice procedure’ or ‘SJP’ where so many uncontested cases have been turned into an office and paper process.

The COVID pandemic has also transformed physical justice into remote and tele-conferenced trial by Zoom.

There have been some well-intentioned noises from government and journalism establishment organisations such as the News Media Association and Society of Editors about improving open justice in recent years.

Cover of Fourth Edition for 1969.

The Institute has been to the coal face as it were to investigate the true nature of open justice and found it woefully wanting.

We put together a pretty damning report on the situation at the Royal Courts of Justice two years ago with a wide range of constructive proposals to improve the situation throughout the legal system.

All our polite letters and emails offering to be part of the HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) ‘media working group’ have been completely ignored.

Presumably HMCTS thinks it is talking to the people who really know what is going on.

However, Hold The Front Page reported that Jon Harris, the editor of the Manchester-based news agency Cavendish Press was complaining that ‘placing of restrictions protecting criminals in court has now reached an “unprecedented” level.’

He also said coronavirus is being used as an excuse to bar his reporters from hearings.

The cutbacks and pressures on the legal system and journalism industry combined with the pandemic crisis have produced a perfect storm of wretchedness. Truth be told that all those trying to continue doing their jobs have been heroic.

It is pretty lamentable that in 2020 Mr Harris was complaining about so many Contempt of Court Act Section 11 orders being imposed at cases his reporters are covering that challenging them would be a “complete waste of time and money”.

As a court reporter and news agency editor myself I was fighting this in 1984 and went to the European Court of Human Rights on this issue.

So much for the efforts of the ‘media working group.’ Has it been a complete waste of time and space and full of hot air? Only time will tell.

To be fair to those involved published protocols on the relationship between court staff and journalist publishers have been very constructive.

They have involved and consulted the Evening Standard’s Courts Correspondent Tristan Kirk who recorded a YouTube message introducing a new HMCTS Media Guidance document.

There was a glitzy launch of the guide at the Central Criminal Court in March this year with much grandstanding by the people involved including government minister Chris Philp.

‘Justice must be seen to be done’ he was reported saying. But is it? Has it really improved? The jury is out on that question.

Certainly, there is every reason to be concerned that Mr Kirk may be the only ‘Courts Correspondent’ employed by any national news organisation.

Meanwhile, there is just more and more of the law intervening to prevent journalists and what the Essential Law editors now call ‘media organisations’ from reporting the truth.

Mike Dodd warned in an interview with Press Gazette this year that privacy has become the biggest threat to press freedom in the UK.

A subject that barely concerned two pages of the 1988 edition now has to explain why it is virtually impossible to report the names of criminal suspects who have been arrested but not charged.

He told Press Gazette: ‘The growth of privacy has gone too far […] and we now have a situation in which the Court of Appeal takes the view that a man who is accused of or suspected of criminal activity or is even being investigated for potential criminal activity is entitled to regard that as being private information that shouldn’t be in the public domain – which is why we’ve got the situation where nobody is prepared to name the MP who is accused of raping a parliamentary worker despite the fact that she thinks he ought to be named.’

All students of journalism and indeed professional practitioners need to read and keep abreast of Essential Law for Journalists.

It is a book that needs a new edition every two years because courts, government and Parliament are determined to make our lives as legally difficult as possible.

Mr Dodd and Mr Hanna have done a quite brilliant job offering clarity, explanation and warning to the extent that what has often been described as ‘a journalist’s bible’ has the respect of lawyers and judges as well as professional journalists.