A “News Medium”

December 1st, 2013 by Dylan Leave a reply »

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall illustrating the views of Voltaire – frequently cited in discussions on freedom of speech. In this case I disapprove of what Whale Oil says, but defend his right to consider himself a journalist while doing so.

In September a judge ruled that controversial blogger Cameron Slater’s Whale Oil blog didn’t constitute a “news medium” by it’s legal definition, and therefore he couldn’t claim the Journalist’s privilege of protecting his source in a defamation case.

I don’t like Slater, and I can’t stand his blog or the frequently hateful comments posted by his readers, but I can’t see how the definition in question doesn’t apply to him. And, if it doesn’t apply to him then it seems reasonable to assume it also won’t apply to many other blogs that might otherwise have assumed they were able to protect their sources.

In this section,—
informant means a person who gives information to a journalist in the normal course of the journalist’s work in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium
journalist means a person who in the normal course of that person’s work may be given information by an informant in the expectation that the information may be published in a news medium
news medium means a medium for the dissemination to the public or a section of the public of news and observations on news
public interest in the disclosure of evidence includes, in a criminal proceeding, the defendant’s right to present an effective defence.

Evidence Act 2006, section 68, subsection 5.

The definition for news medium is simple and also rather broad. It seems clear that the purpose of the Whale Oil blog is exactly that – dissemination to a section of the public news and observations on news. That’s exactly what his site does. Mostly it’s observations on news, but he does actively solicit tips from informants and publishes details of those tips as news.

I’d tend to assume also that the definition of informant was relevant here. Surely the person in question who provided Slater with the hard drive that’s at issue in this case believed that Whale Oil qualified as a news medium (and by extension that Slater was a journalist) meaning their identity could be protected.

People commenting on the case are hung up on Slater’s clear ideological bias, but I don’t think it’s relevant. The Evidence Act’s definitions make no mention of such things. Martyn Bradbury’s Daily Blog, which has been crowing over Slater’s loss, seems to be equally lacking in supposed news medium qualifications if Judge Charles Blackie’s ruling is to be considered a precedent.

Personally I hope Slater wins his appeal on this point, as I think making subjective judgments on the value or quality of news to determine it’s legitimacy is a slippery slope. We can easily point the finger and chuckle when it’s someone we disagree with like Slater, but at some point it could easily be someone who we do like.