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5 live's coverage of injunction story

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Steve Mawhinney Steve Mawhinney | 16:10 UK time, Tuesday, 24 May 2011

I know as a breed journalists don't engender much sympathy and nor do we expect much, but this is a heartfelt plea to spare a thought for some of our colleagues. Being a media lawyer is not easy at the best of times. Being a lawyer for the BBC can be a nightmare.

There are a number of laws which impact on what journalists can report. Some of them are pretty black and white but much of the law in this area is a muddy grey. Interpreting it takes detailed knowledge and legal expertise but in the end there is often no certainty. Ultimately some decisions rely on a stomach-churning judgment by journalists that can never be exactly right or wrong but hopefully balances the needs of the law and the needs of the public, and satisfies both. Yet this rarely stops us demanding advice and guidance at all times of day and night from our beleaguered lawyers with as little muddy grey as possible.

That has never been truer than in the past few days, as the story about the private life of a certain footballer you may now have heard of has dominated the news agenda. On one level the legal position was clear. An injunction had been obtained and served on the media, including the BBC. This directly forbids us from revealing the identity of the player or the details of the allegation he wanted to keep private.

Of course, as the identity of this footballer became more widely known on Twitter and was published in a Scottish newspaper, the whole legal process began to fall into disarray and legitimate questions needed to be asked about its efficacy, never mind the wider issues of privacy versus free expression. But as for naming the footballer - well the position remained clear as long as the injunction was in place. So we had to be really careful to make sure that in reporting the wider issues that neither we, nor our contributors, broke the injunction on air, whatever people might be saying off it.

On a 24 hour news (and sport) station like 5 live this was not easy and we put in place a number of guidelines to help us. We limited the number of contributors on the story, pre-recorded more of them and throughout stressed the importance of maintaining the injunction. All of which seemed to work until John Hemming MP stood up in the Commons yesterday afternoon and deliberately blurted out his name.

Now we were in uncharted waters because two different laws were colliding. The injunction remained in place (the courts having rejected a plea by The Sun for it to be lifted) but parliamentary privilege usually affords MPs the freedom to comment on whatever they want in the Commons chamber and provides the media with a (more restricted) right to report it. What to do?

Well as I understand it (though I'm no expert) there is no clear precedent about which of the laws trumps the other in these circumstances but we, along with the rest of the media, felt we had an obligation to report the proceedings of parliament to our audience, while honouring the rest of the injunction as best we could. It was one of those stomach-churning judgments.

No doubt as this whole issue evolves in the coming days and months, there will be more of those judgments to be made. We will do our best to get them right but I am sure you will let us know when you think we haven't. Throughout though, we will lean heavily on our learned friends who I'm sure are hoping another big story turns up and soon. With no legal ramifications at all. Fat chance I reckon.

Steve Mawhinney is 5 live's Head of News


  • Comment number 1.

    Please note that on this occasion, comments will be moderated before they appear on the site. This post, from the BBC Internet Blog, may help you to understand what we can publish.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    Praise or be removed. I really shouldn't bother

  • Comment number 4.

    I appreciate Steve Mawhinney's caution but Hasit, is it really necessary that you set yourself up in such an odd way as the Corporation's moderator?

    At this rate there will be hardly any opportunities to comment on blogs ... or maybe that's what you are after? Don't want pesky listeners getting in the way do we?

  • Comment number 5.

    I think it is wonderful that the celebrity-obsessed 5 Live presenters managed to control themselves to prevent a slip of the tongue getting the BBC in to trouble and wasting the licence payers money in fees for lawyers.

    It seems to me though that actually all you on 5 Live have done is what is expected of you: behave lawfully.

  • Comment number 6.

    Jackstumps - I'm not the moderator.

  • Comment number 7.

    There is nothing "grey" about it. The injunction was legitimate, it has been breached and therefore the due process of law ought to take its course in the normal way. There is nothing political or controversial since the injunction did not prohibit a speech.
    Of course, certain criminals have particular resources enabling their own protection from justice and in this case the press have controversialised the law itself. Without this strategy the Sunday Herald would have been fined out of existence and the BBC would have neither become criminalised nor attempted to subvert the law into a controversy to pre-exculpate themselves.
    It is a sort of social blackmail in which the criminal can only be prosecuted if the prosecutor happens to be able to justify the law as a legislator as well as prove guilt.

  • Comment number 8.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 9.

    This whole trivial story is pathetic. Its got nothing to do with the law and everything to do with different aspects of the media all being scared to death that their own form will become antiquated unless something is done. Lazy journo's from the press and the BBC have relied on twitter for ages now and have created a monster which they have no control of.
    Day by day, Hour by hour we are bombing Tripoli.

  • Comment number 10.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 12.

    Does anyone really care about what some daft footballer does in his private life? I have met nobody who is in the slightest bit interested in this. It is the media that lead the frenzy - they instigate and perpetuate all of this.


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