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BBC moderation, the Law and "censorship" part 2: Contempt of Court

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Paul Wakely Paul Wakely | 10:27 UK time, Monday, 9 March 2009

This is the second post looking at legal issues that affect the way we moderate contributions to the BBC's blogs, messageboards and community websites. Part 1 dealt with defamation, this time I'll consider contempt of court.

Contempt of court law means that we have to avoid publishing comments that "create a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced" in active court proceedings in the UK.

Many people do not realise that criminal proceedings become active as soon as someone has been arrested, so when the news breaks of a high-profile arrest, that's the point at which we have to consider contempt of court when moderating. It's also the point at which everyone wants to comment on the arrest, and often with contributors' emotions running high, many of the comments make it hard for the moderators to strike a balance between allowing fair comment on a case and removing content that could break contempt of court law.

And of course, if a comment assumes the guilt of the suspect, it is potentially libellous as well. How "substantial" the risk a comment to a website can represent is key to a successful prosection of the publisher for contempt. It will depend on several factors including how far off are the court proceedings and how damaging to a fair trial the comment may be.

In any high-profile case journalists always walk a tightrope between trying to satisfy public hunger for information and staying within contempt laws. Newspapers are notorious for testing the limits of contempt of court, and even if comments are intended as a joke, that's no defence, as the BBC has found to its cost.

In printed media, and most radio and television output, it should be easy to make sure that you don't break the law, since it's you who is in charge of what goes on the page or into a broadcast. But when comments appear on a story it becomes far more difficult to limit the risks.

For example, UK contempt law would usually prohibit any reference to the previous conviction(s) of someone facing new court proceedings. This is easy for a TV reporter, they just have to get through a report without accidentally saying "And of course we all remember the defendant from his murders in the Nineties" (though mistakes do happen).

But the current statutory contempt law dates back to 1981, when no-one realised that an internet filled with archived news stories, blog entries, comments and even cached pages would make the exchange of this kind of information easy and immediate. If you aren't aware of contempt of court law it would seem perfectly reasonable when a story breaks to post a link to an archived page and say 'hasn't this bloke done this before?' And under the current laws the BBC moderators would have to have to remove your post.

In my final post, I'll look at reporting restrictions.

Paul Wakely is Content Producer, Future Media & Technology.


  • Comment number 1.


    Thanks for the excellent insight into the ways the BBC moderates comments...

    -Dennis Junior

  • Comment number 2.

    One question, how's it decided which stories are pre- or post- moderated? To my untrained eye it seems quite haphazard.

  • Comment number 3.

    Has any checking with expert been done as to whether any blog or message board could ever constitute 'a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced'.

    Clearly a tv news report to the land could. Even now a media web page.

    However there are millions of messages in blogs and message boards. To claim a post 'substantially' affected a case, on the surface seems ludicrous. It is probable that the complete opposite contentions will be in posts right next to any supposed 'wrong' one.

    Can a few needles in a vast internet haystack ever in reality constitute anything close to 'substantial risk'?

    'I think Bloggins did it', is of course the chat of every office, workshop and pub. But that is ok?

    On the whole I doubt many users are at all bothered by this area of BBC moderation. Legal reasons are reasonable. The subjective rules are the major problem. Your explanations are informative, but probably affect a minuscule portion of moderation removals of messages.

  • Comment number 4.


    You're welcome :-D


    This link:

    and the sections that follow give some indication of where each kind of moderation is applicable. Are you referring to the Have Your Say stories, or elsewhere on the BBC? HYS still has lots of premoderation as the news sites attract comments with a lot of legal risk, as do some of the blogs. Out of the boards, only the childrens services are premod. Contentious boards like 5live news boards and Religion are post-mod.

    In general, the BBC is trying to move as much towards reactive moderation as we can within legal and editorial constraints - not only is it far cheaper, but is also the most popular option with the public who post. Balancing this against the risks is the difficult part.

  • Comment number 5.


    "Has any checking with expert been done as to whether any blog or message board could ever constitute 'a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced'."

    Do you mean, was legal advice sought when devising the BBC's moderation guidelines?!

    Of course. The BBC's legal department review individual comments when necessary, so, yes, we do talk to them when implementing moderation guidelines.

    The issue of substantial risk is very interesting and we would expect this will arise in the courts in coming years. However, as the BBC we have to moderate according to the legal advice we're getting now, not how we would like the law to adapt in the future. The penalties for contempt of court can be extremely high, so it would be highly irresponsible for us to be testing the limits with licence fee payers' money.

    Please see my reply to your comment on my previous post as some of the same issues are covered there (sorry I've been so long getting back, laid up with the lurgy)



  • Comment number 6.

    Thank you Paul Wakely.

    Of course we can not expect the BBC to do the testing of the law.

    That you expect such issues to come forward soon probably answers my query. I guess the law just is 20 years behind reality when it moves and creates new unthought of situations in new technology areas like the internet.

    Redefining law to differentiate between a media organisation reporting 'he looks guilty' and a ordinary person's expressed opinion 'he looks shifty and guilty to me'. Which sort of thing has no doubt been said all over the place long before the internet blog, board posts system, just in conversations.

  • Comment number 7.

    For me the only gripe I have with BBC moderation is that it's so darned slow. Posts in Robert Peston's blog (for example) often take 2 hours to be moderated, and it was over 5 hours today. Most other blogs seem to suffer the same fate.

    Whilst I fully appreciate the sheer quantity of data that the BBC needs to process, if you can't moderate within a sensible timescale, then all you're doing is stifling discussion and debate, and surely that destroys the entire point of allowing your readers to make comment.

    It would be good to see the BBC go out on a limb a little more often and use post-moderation instead of insisting on doing pretty much everything of any worth with pre-moderation. Either that, or you need to employ a lot more moderating staff to deal with the load, in which case, gis a job ;-)

  • Comment number 8.

    and how ironic that this is one of the few reactively moderated BBC forums.

  • Comment number 9.

    Thanks to Central Communities for the kind words....mentioning ME...

    Question: How often does the BBC and the rules for complaints get revised and updated....

    -Dennis Junior

  • Comment number 10.

    I'm not sure which Part of this blog to make this comment, which concerns the general matter of the House Rules.

    The CCT has recently confirmed:

    That the board is reactive does not necessarily mean that posts need to be complained about in order to be viewed by a moderator. Certain topic areas, users and key words may be sent to moderation at the discretion of the Communities Team.

    This statement would seem a concise expression of current practice; for the sake of transparency I would like to see it incorporated into the Moderation - Checking & Removal of Messages page.

  • Comment number 11.

    Biggus Doggus (7),
    "It would be good to see the BBC go out on a limb a little more often and use post-moderation instead of insisting on doing pretty much everything of any worth with pre-moderation. Either that, or you need to employ a lot more moderating staff to deal with the load, in which case, gis a job ;-)"

    Seconded! We're getting tired of being in the same playpen as Cbeebies, and we can change our own nappies, too!


  • Comment number 12.

    The above comments about moderation are drifting off topic. Please stick to the subject of the post please.

  • Comment number 13.


    Thanks for the response, but can someone please tell us where we can appropriately make requests about more adult moderation.

    "The above comments about moderation are drifting off topic."

    A rather subjective and restrictive view of the topic.

  • Comment number 14.

    Ed - your request has been noted. I'll try and get a blog post about the subject.

  • Comment number 15.


    Sorry to be a pain, but is it me, or is the "new look" thread actually broken?

    It seems fine except there's no comment box, and the source shows:
    <p class="comment-text"><!-- There was a problem rendering this page. -->
    [much white space]
    [more white space]

    <!--contents ends here-->

    <!-- sidebar starts here -->
    Curiouser and curiouser....

  • Comment number 16.

    Re #14 - thankyou Nick for proposing another blog post concerning the processes of BBC moderation. For the sake of continuity, could I suggest it should be Part 4?


  • Comment number 17.

    Not very logical Russ as these posts are about the law when it applies to moderation, not the BBC's policies on moderation.


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