Tips of the trainer - DANGERS WITH LETTERS PAGES

If you want to make a sub-editor thoroughly miserable, then ask him (or her) to sub the publication’s letters page. It’s enough to wipe the smile off anyone’s face.

It’s a boring job at the best of times and, as a result, the sub who has drawn the short straw might approach it with a lack of enthusiasm – and concentration.

But this is the page that probably presents more legal risks than any other page in a newspaper or magazine. Subs need to approach it with their legal radar switched on.

Here are some of the risks:

Libel is the obvious danger. Readers will see the letters page as a great chance to sound off about all kinds of issues – and will probably not have the first clue about libel. Remember – if you publish their libellous statements, you are responsible for them, even if it was the reader who wrote them. And so you may have to prove the truth of any allegations that they contain.

Beware of letters that comment on court cases that are in progress, or just about to start. There is a risk that you could commit contempt of court by prejudicing a trial.

Watch out for letters that offer a reward for the return of stolen goods, “with no questions asked”. Offering such a deal can be an offence under the Theft Act 1968.

Check letters for copyright. They may contain extracts from other copyright work, and if so, these will need acknowledging. Also, remember that if you use a letter twice (in a rag-out, perhaps, to remind readers of a letter that prompted a lot of responses), then the writer is technically entitled to payment. When sending in a letter for publication, the sender is only licensing one free publication.

Letters from racists are not uncommon, especially with asylumseekers in the news. There is nothing wrong with airing genuine concerns about issues like this, but you need to beware of breaching the Public Order Act 1986, which bans publication of material that is threatening, abusive, or intends to stir up racial hatred or is likely to do so. The Press Complaints Commission’s Code of Practice also needs to be considered here.

Take care that a letter does not identify someone whose identity has been concealed for legal reasons – a rape victim, a juvenile involved in a crime, someone covered by a section 11 order, a ward of court, etc.

We cannot use letters that offer children for adoption, or from people who want to adopt a child – even if they are well meaning. These are banned by the new Adoption Act 2002.

Watch out for letters that mention someone’s previous convictions. They could breach the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974.

Letters that betray confidences may well be safe – but we need to check that there is no injunction in place banning publication.

Letters published during election campaigns can be especially dangerous with regards to libel. It is best to confine letters to policies, and avoid attacks on personalities.

Cleland Thom runs Journalism Training Services (www.ctjt.biz).

He can be contacted at cleland.thom@tesco.net

compiled by Cleland Thom

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