Toolbox: Key principles to report on ongoing investigations of public figures

What are they key principles for reporting on police investigations of prominent public figures?

Investigative journalism seeks to serve the public interest. IMPRESS CEO, Jonathan Heawood, speaks with experts Paul Wragg (Associate Professor of Law at the University of Leeds) and Thomas Bennett (Lecturer in Law at City University) about the main points to take into account when reporting on ongoing legal or police investigations of public figures. In particular for independent news publishers, which tend to have a limited budget, and are more risk averse, given that legal risks can be expensive.

Paul Wragg:

The key issue is proportionality. If you are reporting on a matter involving a well known figure, an emphasis on the facts first of all is important - as is with contempetive court rules. A proportionate article that captures the significance of what is taking place. That doesn't mean it can't be reported on page 1. What it might mean is that there are less photographs of the actual process involved, for example. I think the important part to also emphasis is the role of that individual in society. 

Paul's two main points for publishers to take into account are: 1. Who is the story about?; 2. What is the proportionate way of covering?

Thomas Bennett clarified an important point in relation to the idea of "proportionality":

The question of proportionality is not whether excessive harm wil be caused. The question is: assuming that harm is going to be caused, how can it be minimised? The publisher should consider: what is the most intrusive coverage that I have to engage in order to satisfy the public interest in reporting this fact.

He also added:

The point at which it is not necessary to serve the public interest, that is the point at which you have to stop. That is the key thought: how far do I have to go to make the point that I feel I have to make?

Listen to the full audio here:


Note: this audio is an excerpt from the IMPRESS Podcast Episode #2: Privacy in the news: the case of Sir Cliff Richard vs. the BBC.