Legal lions roar at INK+BEYOND

Publishers and editors heard three of British Columbia’s finest media lawyers offer tips, suggestions and advice on the array of legal pitfalls facing the newspaper industry at INK+BEYOND 2011.

Ian Mulgrew, legal affairs columnist at the Vancouver Sun, moderated a panel discussion involving lawyers Dan Burnett, David Sutherland, and Robert Anderson. Topics included the recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling that provides limited protection of sources, online comments, defamation and other legal issues.

The most significant change on the media law landscape is likely the court ruling offering limited protection of sources, the audience heard. Prior to the ruling no such defense existing in Canada, and a journalist couldn’t legally ignore a judge’s order to reveal sources.

Now, the ability to protect sources will be decided on a case-by-case basis. With defamation cases, the audience heard that a defense could involve arguments about the public’s right and need to know, but the urgency factor has limitations.

The good news about the defense is also the bad news about the defense, said Anderson. “Every judge, at least in BC, is of the view that nothing is so urgent you couldn’t have delayed publication.” Journalists should have a clear and concise record of trying to contact the subject of a story, said Sutherland, adding: “Scooping the competition is not the urgency factor, but rather the public’s need to know.”

The Internet has had a profound impact on media law, the group heard, leaving a lot of discussion about whether content posted to a newspaper’s site should be vetted or left alone. The general consensus, until legislation arrives, is that content should not be monitored or controlled, but that once an editor is alerted to problematic content, it should be removed if it is in fact deemed to be a concern.

Social media brings its own unique worries, the audience heard, with questions being asked about whether a newspaper is responsible for Twitter comments tied to newspaper-generated content. The group heard that courts could say tweets are like letters to the editor. If contentious tweets are connected to a newspaper article through taglines that say “follow me on Twitter,” a link could possibly be made.

The use of hyper-links on online content was also discussed, raising the question as to whether the links, and potential troublesome content there, constituted publication by the newspaper. “Hyper-linking is such an important part of what we do today … if you can’t link, you’re in big trouble,” said Anderson.

Click here to view the Legal Lions’ Responsible Journalism Checklist »