A lawyer’s guide to navigating the clickbait era

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Ursula Smartt poses for a portrait at the New College of the Humanities in London. Photograph by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

By Josie Cox

News at Northeastern

LONDON—Skim through Ursula Smartt’s CV and you’ll be forgiven for assuming that her sole aim in life is to collect qualifications from as many different fields of work and academia as possible.

Smartt is one of the leading experts on media law in the U.K., a highly topical discipline against the emotionally charged backdrop of Brexit and political upheaval not witnessed in generations. As well as being a lecturer at NCH at Northeastern in London, Smartt on Tuesday, Dec. 4, will be launching the fourth edition of Media & Entertainment Law, widely considered one of the most comprehensive textbooks on the subject.

It couldn’t be coming out at a more appropriate time.

“High-quality journalism continues to be under threat from the rise of clickbait and fake news,” Smartt says. “Print journalism is falling in circulation and it has been difficult for some traditional newspapers to generate revenue. Most of them have gone online, some are more successful than others.

Photo by Suzanne Plunkett for Northeastern University

“This means there is a dramatic and continued rise of largely unregulated social media and it is even more important for journalists to stay on the right side of the law and check their sources.”

Developments such as the U.K.’s departure from the European Union and the election of Donald Trump have called into question the power and dominance of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as informers of public opinion. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has demonstrated the sheer importance of regulation adapting quickly to remain fit for purpose.

“What I explore in the latest edition is that the regulation of election and party political broadcasting is simply out of date,” Smartt says. “Certainly, the Brexit referendum was won by social media engineering.”

Smartt came to the U.K. as a 17-year-old schoolgirl. She left her hometown in the West German state of North Rhine-Westphalia to work as an au pair in northern England port city of Hull, where she also completed her undergraduate degree.

She briefly worked as a radio host before becoming a teacher of languages and physical education. Smartt also pioneered exchange programs between her new home country and her birth nation, something that was broadly welcomed by the communities in which she worked, but not always unanimously.

In Britain in the 1980s, memories of World War II were still etched onto the collective conscious: She remembers occasionally being called a “Nazi pig” by students, and once, a swastika was scratched into the paint job of her Volkswagen car. But she persevered.

After several more years of teaching, and an unexpected interlude during which she lived in Scotland and trained as a chef, Smartt completed a master’s degree in West London, and developed a passion for the legal system.

Her particular focus was prison reform, and the expertise she developed in the field, combined with her linguistic abilities (she speaks fluent French and Spanish in addition to German and English), allowed her to work as a consultant internationally. But teaching, it seemed, remained her true love. She completed a law conversion course, after which she started teaching public law, criminal law, and eventually media law, which, she says, was when she found her real  “niche.”

“I wrote my own teaching materials since there was no comprehensive [media law] course textbook at the time,” she recalls. “This then became the basis for the first and subsequent edition of Media & Entertainment Law.”

Smartt now has a slew of books to her name. In addition to her numerous academic degrees and diplomas, she’s also a magistrate in British courts. Her works are staples on the syllabi of universities across the U.K. and beyond, because—she explains—“they’re very user-friendly, didactic, easy to read but obviously absolutely factually correct.”

At 700 pages, the fourth edition of Media & Entertainment Law is also about 200 pages longer than the previous edition, with a particular emphasis on how social media platforms, and companies like Amazon and Netflix can be regulated.

She particularly delves into the problem of protecting younger audiences from potentially harmful content, broadcast via YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest, without implementing outright censorship. She investigates the case of the British schoolgirl Molly Russell, who captured the attention of the U.K. media in 2017 when she took her own life after following age-inappropriate content on social media.

“My investigation for this chapter in the book found that these online social media and video destinations encourage self-harm and suicide and should be better regulated,” Smartt says. The question, though, she adds, is by whom.

“I have come to the conclusion that in a digitally connected world without physical borders it has become near impossible to regulate these platforms effectively,” she says.

Her newest book also delves deeply into subjects such as defamation and freedom of speech, privacy, ethics, and contempt, all overlaid with the latest case studies, legislation, and context.

Smartt has a sharp eye on European legal challenges, and the fourth edition explores the implications of ongoing “right to be forgotten”, or “right to erasure” cases that have dominated headlines across Europe.

“I came to the conclusion that complete privacy in the internet age seems to hardly exist for those who openly disclose and publish their private lives via social media,” she says.

Smartt says that the book also includes a new chapter on election laws in terms of party political and election broadcasting. Her caveat, however, is that these “laws are fast becoming out of date” as the pace of change across politics, culture, and society continues to accelerate at an unprecedented pace.

As such, even just as the fourth edition of her tome hits the shelves, it seems pertinent to ask her what might be in the next.

Smartt says that the evolution of the media landscape, the challenges facing traditional print journalism, and the rapid rise of new digital outlets will be an overarching theme of the fifth edition. But it will also address some of the biggest legal cases making headlines across the U.K. at the moment.

Meghan Markle, the wife of Prince Harry, recently started legal proceedings against the Mail on Sunday, one of Britain’s most popular conservative tabloid newspapers, over the publication of a private letter.

Smartt says that case studies like this would fit well into the final two chapters of the current edition, which deal with intellectual property law.

She may be a prestigious academic, writer, teacher, chef, and erstwhile radio presenter, but Smartt certainly knows how to sell her books, too. The royals’ appeal rarely disappoints, and fake news may well remain relevant for some time too, regardless of the politicians in charge.

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