The scales of justice
There is an amazing vibrancy, vibrancy and passion about hyperlocal blogs.
With the bottom falling out of newspapers self-motivated people are filling the news gap themselves.
No town, housing estate or tower block is too small or disconnected to support these grassroots newsgatherers.
But to a qualified journalist turned press officer like myself the potential for danger in the ice field of libel law is terrifying.
Chatting to the excellent Philip John of the Lichfield Blog at a recent Black Country Social Media Cafe it’s clear this hasn’t escaped attention.
The idea of registering a company for a blog is an excellent way of getting yourself some protection.
Why? Because British libel laws are amongst the most draconian in the world.
At some point I’m convinced someone will lose their house in the not too distant future over an internet blog post. It’s potentially that serious.
This isn’t a shot across the bows for local bloggers from an old hack who doesn’t ‘get’ social media. Far from it.
In the words of former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans “I love newspapers. But I’m intoxicated by the speed and possibility of the internet.”
This is more a call to action for the blogging community to be as legally aware as they are SEO-savvy.
Of course, not everyone should have to take a law exam before they are allowed onto WordPress. That defeats the object of Web 2.0.
What I am arguing for is as the blogging community slowly self-organises legal advice, or a place where a blogger could find it, is an overdue must.
It’s excellent that Talk About Local have further enhanced their reputation by spotting this need and they now have a place to go.
They have also drafted a nine point manifesto themselves to help. Maybe a tenth should be “Be legal.”?
This would be self-preservation. It could also help construct foundations for a bridge of trust between bloggers and local councils and other organisations.
With the advent of no win no fee legal firms sniffing around blog comments it’s also increasingly important.
SIX things every hyperlocal needs to know about media law:
1. Libel law covers the web – legal action is rare but you need to know what you blog about could become actionable in every jurisdiction on the planet. Technically.
2. It is big money – Living Marxism magazine folded in 2000 after two television reporters and ITN won £375,000 after being accused of sensationalising images of an emaciated Muslim in a Serb run detention camp in Bosnia.
3. It’s useful to know what libel is – there are defences against libel. Here is a link with British Libel laws explained
4. Don’t touch court reports – The rules around court reporting in the UK are so strict, so complex and carry unlimited penalties that all but the foolish would look at it. Take freelance reporters’ copy direct if you like. Don’t lift it from newspapers. And don’t try it at home. Contempt of court is about as much fun as serious illness.
5. Have a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists by your side. It’s the media industry standard. It can save lives. It could save yours.
6. Use the Talk About Local site designed as a signpost for finding legal advice.
Philip John: Getting serious about #hyperlocal blogs. Great piece about media law http://bit.ly/VCf1D
Social By Social legal issues for hyperlocals debate http://bit.ly/2EnY9M
My earlier blog about what hyperlocals mean for Local Government http://bit.ly/nkPrD
Great presentation on media law for bloggers and journalists by Paul Bradshaw http://bit.ly/22NeNs
TAL 09 Hyperlocal Unconference
Senior press officer Jamie McDonald, the angriest man in Scotland, is discussing his choice of film.
“‘There Will Be Blood,” he says. “Great title for a film. But you know what? There wasnae any blood.”
The idea of bloodless confrontation is one I can’t get away from after the excellent Talk About Local Unconference in Stoke-on-Trent.
Organised by @talkaboutlocal the project saw the cream of hyperlocal bloggers from across the country gather to plot, scheme and bounce ideas of each other.
It was fascinating stuff with some amazing things being done.
So where does the confrontation come in?
If old media and social media are colliding then it’s at local government press offices that the front lines can be being drawn.
As newspapers close or scale back there is an overpowering feeling amongst residents of being left without a voice.
BLOG CASE STUDIES
Take the The Lichfield Blog. Founder and ex-journalist Ross Hawkes set it up in January 2009 when a fire engine went past his house prickng the curiosity of his wife.
“My wife said to me ‘I wonder where that’s going?’,” he told me. “I realised that there was no way of finding out anymore because local papers just aren’t there.”
Nine months on and his site now has 16,000 users a month while the incumbent newspaper The Lichfield Mercury has a print run of 60,000.
Then there’s http://www.wv11.co.uk – a hyperlocal for Wednesfield in Wolverhampton.
It was set up by two residents who wanted to make a difference and get a voice heard. Six weeks from launch they had 600 friends on Facebook.
All of a sudden the figures are stacking up.
It could be a town, a borough, a housing estate or even a tower block or two streets. Hyperlocal blogs are beginning to fill a gap. Too small for newspapers to compete with they are their worst nightmares.
Armed with a wordpress site and enthusiasm people can now have their say.
So where’s the friction?
Experienced press officers are used to dealing with trained reporters who know where the law is drawn.
They are often staffed by ex-reporters who earned their spurs the hard way.
Who are these bloggers, they say? Where’ve they come from? Why give them oxygen of publicity by dealing with them in an already busy day?
In Stoke, the Pits n Pots blog say they are not allowed near the press bench despite strong council coverage. It is said that the authority’s communications unit won’t speak to bloggers. At Talk About Local there was at times searing resentment at some press offices’ disregard of bloggers. At best it’s seen as unhelpful. At worst it’s deliberate.
Like them or not, many local government press officers do care passionately about their job and get very irritated when mis-truths and opinion get promoted as hard fact.
On the other side are bloggers, many who don’t have journalistic experience whose ignorance of media law could cost them their house. They care passionately about the place they live or work. That’s why they blog.
Let’s be quite clear here.
Bloggers and press officers are here to stay.
Does it have to lead to friction? Not necessarily. But while each side views the other with suspicion and at times hostility it’s hard to see a way through.
SO WHY SHOULD COUNCILS DEAL WITH BLOGGERS?
If a council’s reputation is being debated in a newspaper a good press officer is there.
If its being done through the letters page the press officer can take issue there.
Go where the debate is.
If that’s Facebook, Twitter or the comment boxes of a newspaper website or yes, a blog, go there.
An organisation’s reputation is increasingly what is being said about it online. So it makes no sense to bury heads in sand and pretend blogs will go away. They won’t.
FIVE THINGS A PRESS OFFICE CAN DO:
1. Treat them as journalists. Give them access to the same information. Coca Cola launched energy drink Relentless in part by explaining the product to bloggers first.
2. Put them on press release mailing lists. It’s not the Crown jewels. Its public information. Who knows? You may even correct misinformation at source.
3. Use blog comment boxes as a press officer. Say who you are and where you are from. Put the council’s position politely and link to further info where you can.
4. Accept not everything bloggers write is going to be favourable. And complain politely – and constructively – if things are wrong.
5. Respect what they do. More often than not they are residents who are articulating issues. Years ago, this was through letters pages. Now its online.
But it’s not all one way traffic. Like the best local newspaper Diamond wedding caption reveals, any relationship is a question of give and take.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR BLOGGERS:
1. Don’t be anonymous. If you have courage of your conviction put your name to what you do. You’ll find your voice getting heard far better.
2. Don’t be afraid to check stories. You’ve heard a new housing estate is being built on playing fields. Isn’t it better to confirm that first – if you can?
3. Respect press officers. They have a job to do too.
4. Be accurate. The same rules for newspapers apply to blogs.
5. Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists. The best, most readable book on media law there is. If you are even halfway serious about blogging on issues that could be controversial buy it and put it next to your computer. It tells you what’s legal and what is not. It. Will. Save. Your. Life.
The Lichfield Blog (lichfield, Staffordshire) http://thelichfieldblog.co.uk/
WV11 (Wednesfield, Wolverhampton) http://www.wv11.co.uk/
Pits N Pots (Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire) http://pitsnpots.co.uk/
Talk About Local http://talkaboutlocal.org/