BBC moderation, the Law and "censorship" part 3: Reporting Restrictions
I'm the producer of the BBC Central Communities Team, which means I work across most BBC services dealing with moderation issues. This is the last post in a series of three about some of the legal issues that we face when moderating the BBC's blogs, message boards and communities. I've written about defamation and contempt of court, but probably the trickiest for us to deal with are specific reporting restrictions.
Reporting restrictions are court orders that prohibit the release of specific information such as the names and addresses of witnesses, defendants, or young people involved in court cases. They can be imposed for a variety of reasons, such as to protect young or vulnerable witnesses or defendants, or because other trials are pending and release of the information could prevent a fair trial.
There are two things that make reporting restrictions so difficult to moderate. The first problem is that in many cases I couldn't even tell you what these restrictions are without risking prosecution, but as an example they currently include a bar on any new information being reported on the case of 13 year-old father Alfie. Sometimes communicating this to our users without giving away the information is hard - simply saying 'We removed your post but can't tell you why for legal reasons' is bound to frustrate users. It's also one of those areas that seems to fire up conspiracy theorists: 'if the BBC are suppressing the truth on this, then they're definitely hiding something on the moon landings/JFK etc'
But the real challenge is the media that we work in. In print, television or radio complying with these restrictions is easy, but when anyone with access to the internet can publish content, once that information is available somewhere, distribution becomes easy and instantaneous. Many of our services are post or reactively moderated so comments appear straight away. And it's not just our services we have to watch for - we also have to decide whether to remove links to other sources of the information such as social networking sites or archived news stories.
The most famous recent example was the 'Baby P' case, where members of the public - or 'Facebook vigilantes' as the Independent described them - attempted to use social media sites including BBC message boards, to breach the court order forbidding the publishing of his killers' identities. Our moderation teams removed these posts as did those of Facebook, Bebo, the Sun and others, but the information was still widely distributed across the web. While blogs and comments inciting violence against the people convicted would not be acceptable under any rules, the public's desire to distribute this information is perhaps understandable with an emotive issue such as this. And to them our actions probably appear as callous censorship, but publication in breach of any court imposed restriction could seriously interfere with the course of justice or destroy someone's life or liberty as well as bringing the risk of prosecution.
When Martin Belam blogged on this issue last year his post attracted some commenters who thought that discussion of publishers' legal responsibilities implied support for the actions of those protected by the order.
This is of course not the case. A publisher has no alternative but to comply with the restriction, although the BBC and the other media organisations will challenge orders they consider to be legally unjustified and an unneccessary incursion into free speech.
Most restrictions are made for valid reasons - Peter Wilby makes a good case for the Alfie Patten restrictions. Clearly, the BBC has to comply with a restriction or it could face contempt proceedings, cause the collapse of a trial or damage someone's life.
But with the spread of access to internet publishing some people argue that it may prove pointless in the future to try to enforce some of these rulings. In the meantime we have no alternative but to remain mindful of and comply with our legal obligations.
The difficulty of moderating BBC services within the law increases. And the cries of 'censorship' faced by major news organisations are only going to get louder.
Paul Wakely is Content Producer, Future Media & Technology.