Media law

From Smoke Academy Wiki

Student media groups have to abide by the same laws as large media organisations like the BBC. It’s important that members understand the basics, because the consequences of breaking the law can get very expensive, very quickly! Knowing the basics will also serve you well when it comes to getting a career in the media.

There are three key areas of the law that intersect with student media work;

  • Defamation
  • Copyright
  • Crime reporting

Student media groups supported by Students’ Unions, including Smoke Media, also have to abide by charity law, which leads to some interesting consequences around election time.


Publishing includes things said on air (even if by a guest!) and online, not just in print.

A defamatory statement is one which damages someone’s reputation. There are certain danger words, like calling someone a liar or a cheat, which set off alarm bells in editors’ heads, because they are likely to be defamatory.

If you libel someone by publishing a defamatory statement about them, you and Smoke Media can be sued for damages that can run into many thousands of pounds. Publication might be writing about them in the newspaper or online, or something said on a live radio or TV show. Even tweets, website comments and Facebook posts are considered publishing.

In order to prove libel in court, a person only needs to prove;

  • The statement would tend to damage their reputation.
  • They were identified in the statement, by name or otherwise.
  • It was published to at least one other person.

They don’t have to prove that you intended to damage their reputation, or that there was any actual damage done.

If someone else says something libellous and you repeat it (either by quoting it or using it in a video or on air), then you’re also at risk, because you’re exposing the statement to a bigger audience.

What if a guest says something defamatory?

Live TV and radio is difficult, and if guests are on air, it’s always possible they might say something that gets the station in hot water.

Where possible, guests should be briefed before going on air about the rules. They should be told not to say anything negative about individuals or organisations unless it’s provable or clearly their personal opinion.

If they say something libellous, you should immediately apologise without repeating the statement, and if you suspect the guest might continue, then take them off air.


Search engines make it easy to filter results down to those you're allowed to use.

Nearly everything is copyrighted. All music, written works, videos, photographs, illustrations should be assumed to be copyrighted works unless you know otherwise. You can’t use a copyrighted work without permission, whether that’s including it in a video or using it as part of a newspaper design.

Some copyright infringements are obvious, such as where a photo taken by a commercial photographer is used without seeking the photographer’s permission, but there are also more subtle cases. For instance, quoting large portions of a speech made at a private event can be infringement, even if the speech is not itself recorded.

The only exceptions to copyright are if a work created long ago has since passed into the public domain - such as the works of Shakespeare - or if the copyright holder has decided to release the work under a Creative Commons license instead.

Creative Commons licenses do allow you reuse a work for your own purposes, provided that you credit the original author of the work. For images, this means that you must caption with the name of the photographer. If their name isn’t known, use the username and the website where it was found.

YouTube has an automated system called ContentID which scans videos and analyses them for copyrighted content, especially music. If you use a popular song in a video, ContentID will flag it. Sometimes YouTube will block your video or mute it, but often they will place ads before your video, the money from which goes to the copyright holder.

You can check the situation for individual tracks here.

The most important exception to copyright law is fair use. You are allowed to use any copyrighted works (except for photographs) for reporting current events or offering criticism and review, as long as you only use as much as is necessary and give credit. Lawyers disagree on exactly how much of a work must be copied for fair use to not apply, so be cautious.

What about radio?

If you need the copyright holder’s permission to use any copyrighted work, including music, where does that leave radio? It’s impossible to get permission from the rights holders for every track you want to play.

Instead, the Performing Rights Society (PRS) offers affordable bulk licenses to broadcasters, including student radio stations.

With a license, a radio station can legally broadcast any tracks they own. Learn more here

Crime and courts

Don't be this guy.

When you’re reporting a criminal case, important reporting rules apply when the case is ‘active’. A case becomes active when an arrest or charge is made or a warrant is issued. The case remains active until:

  • the defendant is sentenced or acquitted
  • the arrested person is released without charge (except on bail)
  • no arrest has been made within 12 months of a warrant being issued.
  • If an appeal is lodged, a case might reactivate.

When a case is active, you mustn’t report anything which could unfairly influence people involved in a trial. This includes:

  • References to a defendant’s previous convictions
  • Information suggesting they are of bad character
  • Any evidence linking them to the crime
  • a witness account
  • A photograph or physical description of a suspect

You can report this information as it comes up in a court trial, as long as your report is fair and accurate. You can always report basic information about a crime, such as where it occurred, the fact that a named person has been arrested in connection etc.

Most of the time, you can report a victim’s name. However, you must never report the name of a sexual offence victim, as they have the right to lifetime anonymity. A victim over 16-years-old can give their written permission to be identified.

If you don’t abide by these rules, you could be found guilty of contempt of court.


Election debates need close supervision to ensure fair and balanced coverage of all candidates.

General elections, local elections, mayoral elections and even SU sabbatical officer elections are covered under the same law when it comes to media coverage.

You must be even-handed and fair in your coverage. In the run-up to elections, some media groups will keep running tallies of how often each candidate is mentioned in its output. In the real world, broadcasters are required to be impartial. Newspapers don’t have this problem, and many openly declare political positions before elections.

However, Students’ Unions are charities - forbidden from taking up political positions.

Anything published by an SU, including student magazines and newpapers, must be balanced and impartial in its election coverage.

This means you must give equal time to every candidate. If you interview one candidate, you should try to interview them all. Debates should also include all candidates.

The BBC’s editorial guidelines around elections are a good place to learn more.

More info

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