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Covering legal cases

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Rajan Datar | 16:17 UK time, Thursday, 7 July 2011

This week on Over to You we have been looking at the reporting of former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn case in New York.

What are the challenges facing an international broadcaster like the BBC when a high profile court case like this goes global?

Since former IMF Chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was first arrested on charges of attempted rape on 14 May, the case has been obsessively followed by press on both sides of the Atlantic, and details of the allegations against him have been repeatedly leaked to the media.

But last week, the media itself became part of the story, after the New York Times ran an article in which law enforcement officials questioned the credibility of the accuser.

After his bail hearing later that day, Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest, and scenes at the courthouse reached fever pitch.

So how has the American media reported the unfolding Strauss-Kahn case, and what challenges do they pose legally for international broadcasters like the BBC?

The BBC's New York correspondent Laura Trevelyan who reported from the courthouse that day, and BBC World News Editor, Joanna Mills discussed these issues with me.

Laura explained how extraordinary the story as a clash of two very different worlds.

Laura covered the United Nations for the BBC where she would see Mr Strauss-Kahn on the global stage, and she contrasted that with the downtown Manhattan courtroom where she found herself waiting for him to appear from the cells to be brought into court.

One of our listeners pointed out that the outcome of the case would be settled by an American jury otherwise it would be a travesty of justice and I wondered whether this case showed that the American media is taking things too far.

Laura explained that in America the First Amendment of the constitution is freedom of speech and the press, so in an open society, information is a currency that everyone has access to.

I wanted to know from Joanna if she felt any responsibility to ensure that the justice system is not prejudiced by reporting - she explained that it is not the BBC's role to see that justice is served, as that is the role of the justice system, but it is the BBC's responsibility to make sure that it doesn't undermine that system.

In a UK case, the BBC is governed by strict laws about what can be reported before the case is put to the jury, but no matter where the story is happening, there are three key principles for her - is the coverage accurate, is it fair, and is it impartial.

These principles apply whether it is reporting an uprising in Syria or a criminal case in New York.

I hope that gives you a sense of the complexity of covering legal cases as a global news organisation.

In the meantime, keep your emails and calls coming.

Rajan Datar is the presenter of Over To You.

Over To You is your chance to have your say about the BBC World Service and its programmes. Broadcast times can be found by clicking here.

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  • Comment number 1.

    I didn't actually want to comment on "covering legal cases". But as I didn't find out how to send a comment to over-to-you, I'm going to post here.
    This morning, friday, I switched on my web radio to listen to "the world today", as I do quite often, but there was no "World Today". Instead there was hardtalk and I don't know what else. My question: Has this happened by mistake, or is the BBC on a stark diet, or on bank holiday? Did I miss something? Or is this already the consequence of "austeritiy measures"? If so, I'd be really shocked.
    Anyway I suggest that the BBC be admitted to the UNESCO world heritage for its unique history in broadcasting. It should be funded accordingly.

  • Comment number 2.

    I can answer that for you:
    It was the day that the news output was reduced due to a strike by BBC journalists.


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