Thursday, May 05, 2011

Re L (A Child: Media Reporting): Journalistic freedom brings with it responsibility

The case Re L (A Child: Media Reporting) [2011] EWHC B8 (Fam) has just been reported on Bailii. It concerns a fact-finding hearing in care proceedings (which I will not deal with here), but His Honour Judge Bellamy also commented on media reporting of the case, in particular two articles written by Christopher Booker in the Daily Telegraph.

Regular readers of Family Lore will be aware of Mr Booker and his campaign against the child protection system - see, for example, this post. Not surprisingly, Judge Bellamy was critical of what Mr Booker had to say about the case. He said (at paragraph 187) that: "Mr Booker's articles contain significant factual errors and omissions", and criticises him for "relying on partisan and invariably tendentious reporting by family members and their supporters rather than being present in court to hear the evidence which the court itself hears".

His Honour then went on to emphasise the importance of the freedom of the press to highlight shortcomings in the family justice system. He concluded (at paragraph 193):
"However, we should not lose sight of the fact that journalistic freedom brings with it responsibility, not least the responsibility to ensure fair, balanced and accurate reporting. So far as concerns the reporting of issues relating to family justice, the public needs to have the confidence that what it reads in the press is indeed fair, balanced and accurate. As Lord Hobhouse put it in Reynolds v Times Newspapers Ltd [2001] 2 AC 127 at p. 238 'No public interest is served by publishing or communicating misinformation.' In my experience, parents involved in court proceedings cannot always be relied upon to be unbiased and dispassionate. More often, as Sir Nicholas Wall has said, they are partisan and tendentious. It is not only judges that need to recognise that but journalists too. As this case has shown, to rely uncritically upon what a parent says can lead to reporting that is unbalanced, inaccurate and just plain wrong."

In a supplementary judgment Judge Bellamy also refers critically to the website (incorrectly referred to as in the judgment), which he says published a 'sexed up' version of the first of Mr Booker's articles.

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