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NB: These were not the students who wrote the story!
   
         
 

If you are involved in student journalism and you'd like to submit some sample copy to the newsdesk we'd be delighted to give it the once-over. The emphasis will be on the practical application of media law and that includes the style in which the story is written.This story was written as part of an end-of-year competition between two groups of journalism students. It was sent to Newsdesk because the tutor was worried it might be in contempt of court. All names, personal details and locations have been changed.


The story as sent


A mentally ill patient who allegedly murdered a social worker had been warning carers he was a danger to the public for months.

The shocking revelations come from an insider working at the Tower Social Inclusion Service where 41-year-old Shawn Roberts, who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, was being treated.

Father-of-three Paul Gibbons was stabbed to death while visiting Roberts’s home last Monday.

In an exclusive interview that will cast doubt on Nontown’s social services the whistle blower revealed …

-The patient had a blazing row with staff days before the stabbing.
- He begged for help but staff did not act.
- Frightened carers at the centre are bullied by their managers to achieve targets

Roberts was arrested at the scene and charged with murder at Nontown Magistrates court on April 18.

The insider said: “Everybody knew he was dangerous, even himself. He was going there and he was crying out for help.

“He was asking them everyday for help but nobody listened. They couldn't’t find him a place to go and be treated because of the funding cuts.

“He had fallen out with staff at the office the week before. When somebody in that condition has had an argument with the people in charge it’s personal.

“The anger was building up inside him.

“The only way they can deal with is if they commit a crime, which has what’s happened here. It’s an ongoing problem that’s not going to change.

" Once these people are outside there’s nowhere they can go for help. If the patients are having a problem they get turned away. When they want help they get told they’re busy.”

Nonshire County Council has launched an enquiry into the stabbing of the 47-year-old..

But the source told how the service is beyond repair. He is now quitting his dream job as a counsellor because of the bad practices going on at the centre.

He said: “I’m absolutely fed up with all the rubbish going on. It’s a comedy of errors.

“The workers are under pressure all the time. They are bullied, criticised and humiliated by people higher up.

“There are so many people at each others throats you can’t do your job properly. The people working here are mentally ill with the stress. People are being pushed to the limit.”

Last year trade unions protested over plans to cut mental health services across the county.

Unison slammed the revelations.

A spokesman said: “If anybody feels the service has been under funded or staff are being treated badly they need to say so.

“If they feel too intimidated to do that they need to go through their Unison branch and we will do it on their behalf.”

A county council spokesman said: “There is an ongoing investigation so we cannot comment on the issue.”


 

The newsdesk analysis


A mentally ill patient who allegedly murdered a social worker had been warning carers he was a danger to the public for months.
mentally-ill is a compound adjective and the two words should be linked

The shocking revelations come from an insider working at the Tower Social Inclusion Service where 41-year-old Shawn Roberts , who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder, was being treated.

shocking– two points here:
1. This is a news story - an orderly assembly of previously unknown facts. Let the readers decide for themselves if those facts shock them.
2. There are libel issues in this story and the use of emotive words like shocking could deprive you of a ‘public interest’ defence. (Dealt with in detail later).
who suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder - contempt of court implications which will be dealt with later.


Father-of-three Paul Gibbons was stabbed to death while visiting Roberts’s home last Monday.


In an exclusive interview that will cast doubt on Nontown’s social services (all of them or just the Tower Social Inclusion Centre?) the whistle-blower revealed …

- The patient had a blazing row with staff days before the stabbing.

- He begged for help but staff did not act. libel implications later

- Frightened carers at the centre are bullied by their managers to achieve targets.- libel implications .

Roberts was arrested at the scene and charged with murder at Nontown Magistrates court on April 18. He would have been charged by the police before he even got near the magistrates court, which is where he would have answered to the charge.

The insider said: “Everybody knew he was dangerous, even himself. He was going there and he was crying out for help.

He was asking them everyday for help but nobody listenedlibel implications

They couldn't find him a place to go and be treated because of the funding cuts.

“He had fallen out with staff at the office the week before. When somebody in that condition has had an argument with the people in charge it’s personal. The anger was building up inside him. The only way they can deal with is if they commit a crime, which has what’s happened here. It’s an ongoing problem that’s not going to change. This is amateur psychoanalysis and weakens the integrity of the piece, besides contributing to the danger of contempt of court.

"Once these people are outside there’s nowhere they can go for help. If the patients are having a problem they get turned away. When they want help they get told they’re busy.” - libel implications

Nonshire County Council has launched an enquiry into the stabbing of the 47-year-old. Police are also investigating.The police have already charged the man.

But the source told how the service is beyond repair. He is now quitting his dream job as a counsellor because of the bad practices going on at the centre. Will this information identify the whistle-blower to the council and will the reporters, by lack of thought, have betrayed his confidence?

He said: “I’m absolutely fed up with all the rubbish going on. It’s a comedy of errors.

“The workers are under pressure all the time. They are bullied, criticised and humiliated by people higher up. libel implications

“There are so many people at each others throats you can’t do your job properly. The people working here are mentally ill with the stress. People are being pushed to the limit.” - libel implications.

Last year trade unions protested over plans to cut mental health services across the county.

Unison slammed the revelations.
(What did Unison slam – the facts which were revealed or, as seems more likely, the whistle-blower’s actions? There is a big difference.)

A spokesman said: “If anybody feels the service has been under-funded or staff are being treated badly they need to say so.

“If they feel too intimidated to do that they need to go through their Unison branch and we will do it on their behalf.”

A county council spokesman said: “There is an ongoing investigation so we cannot comment on the issue.”

 





The legal issues

1. Libel
2. Contempt of court.
3. Protecting sources

 

Libel

It's worrying that after a year's training the students did not seem aware of the libel implications of the story. While local authorities (as governmental bodies) cannot sue for libel their employees certainly can - see case law study at end of this section.

The accusations highlighted in italics in the Newsdesk check are defamatory of:

A. The staff : " He was asking them for help every day but nobody listened." This and other similar statements reflect badly on staff members who, even if they are not named, merely have to demonstrate in a libel action that family or friends recognised them as the people concerned.

B. The “bullying” managers: "The workers are under pressure all the time. They are bullied, criticised and humiliated by people higher up." As far as “managers” is concerned it seems to newsdesk that anyone in a managerial position at the centre could sue.

All the statements seem to be factual rather than comment so the only defences would be:

1. Justification – they would have to prove that the allegations were correct. That would be very hard to do seeing they are relying on one anonymous informer who is using extravagant language (example:"the people here are mentally ill with the stress") that any libel lawyer would dissect with relish.

As far as libelling the staff is concerned there may be a chance to argue a case of bane and antidote. The bane is the inference that they did not care about their clients, the antidote is the suggestion that their attitude was the fault, not of their indifference, but of the bullying by bosses who were making the staff stressed out and unable to function correctly.

2. Common Law Privilege – there are real public interest issues here and the Reynolds defence would be a runner if the allegations were made calmly and with a view to having an inquiry set up to investigate them – but the tone of the article is too febrile for that and there is a lack of balance. The writers have acted as judge and jury to condemn the staff and management. It could not be termed neutral reportage, a phrase which sums up the requirements of the Reynolds defence.

School governors allowed to sue

Contempt of Court

Will the story constitute a substantial risk of serious prejudice ( the key phrase) to any future trial? It may well be that Roberts eventually pleads guilty so that there would be no trial, so no contempt of court. Similar scenarios, however, have had defence lawyers arguing at a trial for reducing the charge to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. We have to write the story on the basis that there might well be a trial so........

“Substantial Risk” – the test is whether a potential juror at Roberts’s trial is likely to read the article. Because it is a classroom newspaper with a circulation limited to the students themselves and whoever was judging the competition this is very unlikely. If no juror can have read it there can be no contempt of court.

But that does not let the writers off the hook. Journalism students should always strive to write reports that can stand up to scrutiny in the real world.

If the report was carried in the local paper or even the university’s student newspaper (the university has over 15,000 students, many of them with permanent addresses in their home town and anyone on the electoral register from 18 to 70 can be called for jury service) the substantial risk element would obviously be satisfied. If so the second step in the substantial/serious equation would come into play.


“Serious prejudice” – if a potential juror did read the article, is it likely that he/she would be prejudiced one way or the other when the time came to consider the verdict?
It seems that most of the revelations have little bearing on the actual crime. But details of his mental state
( the report states categorically that the defendant suffers from obsessive compulsive disorder ) may be a key issue in any trial. Newsdesk would leave out the 'obsessive compulsive disorder' detail.

The law’s view of contempt of court these days is much more liberal than in the past. Don’t forget that it will be about six months before Roberts comes to trial. The view is that by that time the impact of the offending article will fade and that, by the end of the trial, the jurors’ minds will have been taken over by the clinical use of evidence, the cross examinations by both sides and the judge’s summing–up. One caveat here: any disclosure of a previous similar conviction will almost certainly land you in trouble.

 

Protecting sources


Even the state recognises that it is in the public interest that journalists should be allowed to protect their sources, except in three exceptional areas.

S10 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 states: No court may require a person to disclose, nor is any person guilty of contempt of court for refusing to disclose, the source of information contained in a publication for which he is responsible, unless it is established to the satisfaction of the court that disclosure is necessary in the interests of justice or national security or for the prevention of disorder or crime

.Individual journalists have risked prison rather than break their promise of confidentiality for their informants.

Here is a classic example: Journalist wins fight to protect source | Media | The Guardian

That should be a lesson for students whose lack of thought points the finger at the counsellor who is quitting his job at the centre.

 

What next?


Despite its obvious flaws, this story, if the basic facts are correct, is too important to spike. It is in the public interest to determine if such a tragedy could happen again.

First of all the story needs background material to enable the readers to understand the underlying problem.

What does the centre do? Where is the centre? How long has it been operating? What kind of people do the staff deal with? Why was the dead social worker visiting Roberts? There are lots of similar questions to be answered to make this into a rounded news story.

Then there is the job of checking out the informant's story . The union would be a help here and so would be the Freedom of Information Act.

As far as legal issues are concerned concerned the best time to use this story would be immediately after the trial when there would be no contempt of court worries.

The libel issues are a different matter. One man's testimony would not be enough to justify the highly defamatory nature of his accusations. This would have to be an exercise based on the Reynolds
10-point checklist, details of which are illustrated by case-studies in
Newsdesk Law.

 

 

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