There’s two types of lawyer. Those who want to keep your best stories out of the paper and those that keep your best stories out of the paper.
Lawyers view every piece of copy, every picture caption, every headline as a libel case waiting to happen.
And when you graduate from rewriting press releases to actually fashioning something new and bold based on a killer tip-off, you’ll become very familiar with your local in-house lawyer.
There are those who exist to put as much as is humanly possible before your reader but more often than not, your highly-paid friend is there to keep the libel insurance renewal payments o the minimum.
And there’s no better way than vetoing stories.
While it used to be the case that Editors had all-wielding power and could decide IF a story will run and where, the falling stock of newspapers and their diminishing incomes has given the lawyer in many newsrooms the ultimate power to say no.
It will be a long-time before we see the likes of the Daily Mail’s classic front ‘Murderers‘ splash headline.There isn’t a lawyer alive that would let that accusation of murder without proof stand on a UK front page.
Paul Dacre, the editor who ran it, gave a lengthy explantion here and calls it the ‘lonely hour’ when the editor closes their office door and decides the splash.
So how do you sneak your stories into your publication without them ending on a spike or stuck in the lawyer’s office?
Right To Reply
So you’ve been given a great tip-off and you’ve put some legwork into the yarn. You may even have a few documents which support the thrust of your claim. You write the story but you don’t want to kill it with a denial or a no comment from your subject when you pitch it to the desk.
Desk only want simple solutions and we’ve already outlined why conference is a daily Guernica for your long-siffering news editor.
But here’s the thing. If you’re due to publish at 10.30pm, don’t wait until 9pm to get a reaction. Give the subject a day. Plague them. Leave emails on office and personal addresses (but no salacious material in the office one in case they have a PA, you don’t want to repeat a libel to a thrid party), make sure voice mails are left on office and personal mobiles and a letter couriered and signed for to their home.
All of this pleases your lawyer as nothing upsets a jury member than being told that Sex Whip CEO Frenzy Storm Bonkathon’s protagonist was only given 30 minutes to answer your string of questions.
If a story isn’t taped, did it really happen? Shorthand is great and jduges love reporters’ notebooks as they are virtually impossible to forge. But jury’s lvoe tape reorcdings. And so does your lawyer.
Off The Record
No such thing. Really. If it’s said to you and you can prove it, it exists. How you treat comments in this context is up to you and if you want to get more than one story in your lifetime you would be wise to respect the convention. but that’s all it is – a convention.
If you’re in an interview with a notepad, keep the tape reocrder in your jacket or bag reocrding away while making great play of putting your notebook and pen away while your subject waxes lyrical.
This is called insurance. Lawyers like it.
Don’t Tell Your Lawyer Anything
They cannot lie.
Tell your editor, they can.
Categories: Survive Your Newsroom