Thursday, 1 May 2014

Niamh Hargan - Media Law and Practice at University of Ulster Explained

[Niamh Hargan, a recently qualified solicitor took part in the new curriculum, Media Law and Practice, at the University of Ulster. A joint venture between the University of Ulster and SmithDehn LLP. She shares her experience of the course:]

As recently reported on Media Law Northern Ireland and elsewhere, this month has seen yet more exciting news for our burgeoning local film and television industry.

At a launch party on April 26th, international media and entertainment law firm SmithDehn LLP, together with production company Social Construct Media, announced the intention to establish their key European base in Derry later this year.

Already, though, these innovative twin companies have been making an impact: for the past twelve weeks, they have been teaching a pilot course in Media Law and Practice at the University of Ulster’s Magee campus, with partner and CEO Russell Smith at the helm. Among the 30 students, of which I was one, several had a background in legal studies and/or practice, whilst others brought hands-on experience of working in the media or arts sectors. This diversity was a smart move on the part of the course organisers; sparking an element of mutual curiosity, it ultimately made for a balanced and lively dynamic within what was truly a fantastic group of people to be surrounded by.

The course was pitched at postgraduate level, and equates to 30 credit points. Upon successful completion of a final assessment, these credits can be put towards an LLM in Commercial Law at the University of Ulster, or may be combined with a variety of additional courses to obtain the Postgraduate Certificate of Professional Development. It is worth pointing out, however, that this final assessment is optional and – in any event – did not represent the foremost focus of the classes. For those of us who have, by necessity, become accustomed to exam-driven education, this was a hugely refreshing change of pace. No desks, no frantic scribbling of citations or slavish rote-learning – just people in a circle, talking.

And talking about some pretty interesting stuff, at that. The bread and butter of media litigation – copyright infringement and defamation – were discussed extensively, with lawyers from the UK, US and the Republic of Ireland offering contemporary, real-life examples. Being exposed to multi-jurisdictional perspectives, - as we were throughout all aspects of the course - was especially helpful here since the legal position can differ significantly from territory to territory.
Non-contentious matters were also explored, with students gaining an insight into the often-unseen work of the in-house lawyer. HBO’s Peter Rienecker and Viviane Eisenberg showed us material from the network’s past and upcoming projects, for instance, explaining how it had been altered to minimise the risk of litigation. General Counsel to Channel 4 Prash Naik explained the demands of complying with domestic television broadcasting standards. Andrew Baker, former head of Business Affairs at ITV, outlined the process of developing factual programming, encouraging us to analyse the first draft of a contract for a lucrative television show before showing us the finalised version.

At the risk of sounding like a geek in front of everybody on the internet, this was all just so cool. It was also hugely exciting to hear from Zak Kilberg and Iz Web of Social Construct Media and learn a little about the projects they intend on bringing to Northern Ireland. This more obviously creative side of things in fact represented another important element of the course, with an introduction to independent film production covering everything from financing to shooting to distribution. Once again, this was a very participative process, which saw class content tailored to suit students’ particular interests.

Indeed, all of the high-calibre speakers involved throughout the course appeared keen to engage with and faciltate students in this way; they put faces to the vague feeling that there is challenging and interesting work to be done in law, the media and the intersection between the two, and seemed genuinely happy to be in Northern Ireland to speak to us about their experiences. This was a nice antidote to today’s norm, whereby those entering into any profession may be confronted with little more than some fairly depressing statistics, and are often advised simply to “get out while you can!” by the very people who could be their mentors.

Participating in this course taught me things I couldn’t learn in a textbook. It was a genuinely enlivening experience, and a really fun way to spend a Saturday.

Can’t say better than that.

It is anticipated that the University of Ulster/SmithDehn postgraduate short course in Media Law and Practice will run on an annual basis, with the second intake commencing towards the beginning of 2015. All queries should be directed to

Our previous posts on the course and SmithDehn here and here.

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