Donald Trelford: Concern over current threats to editorial freedom is entirely justified
Monday 25 August 2008
Newspapers cry wolf so often at the slightest perceived threat to editorial freedom that it is sometimes hard to know when the danger is real. In a number of current cases, however, there are grounds for serious concern.
Take coroners’ courts, for |example. The Ministry of Defence has been embarrassed time and again by comments, notably from the Oxford coroner, about failures of military equipment causing, or at least contributing to, the death of troops in Iraq. The MoD would like coroners silenced. The Government tried to introduce a gagging clause into the Coroners Bill. When that was removed after strenuous lobbying by press groups, it reappeared in a different form in the Counter-Terrorism Bill.
This includes powers for the Ministry of Justice to remove juries from inquests and provide a “specially appointed coroner” in the so-called interests of national security. The effect would be felt mainly at military inquests at RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire. The Bill will be debated in the Lords after the recess.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, says: “An inquest is an important public occasion. The power to ban reporters from inquests could be used in all sorts of cases to halt the reporting of embarrassing stories for the Government or the armed forces.”
Michael Smith, defence correspondent of The Sunday Times, points out that “there are already procedures in place to hold hearings in camera. Appointing someone who will be seen as a government stooge is no way of ensuring that the justice system is free and fair” – or, indeed, open.
If this clause goes through unchecked, it will make nonsense of Gordon Brown’s promise last year that his government would extend liberty in Britain by “respecting freedoms for our press, the removal of barriers to investigative journalism, respecting the public right to know”, and providing “new rights to access public information”.
In order to honour that commitment, the Prime Minister might also take a look at our libel laws, which have just been attacked by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. These laws, says the UNCHR |report, have “served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest”. It refers to “libel tourism” – a phenomenon highlighted in this paper’s news pages last week – in which celebrities, from Britney Spears to Boris Berezovsky, can successfully use British courts to sue American publications. Britain is now seen as a soft touch in the way that France used to be.
This process is exacerbated by conditional fee agreements (CFAs, or “no win, no fee”). These were designed to help poor people bring libel actions, but the effect has been the opposite: to encourage the rich to sue without financial risk. The whole process threatens the existence of weaker papers and regionals, who can’t afford to defend cases in court and are thus disinclined to expose any wrongdoing in their pages.
The UNCHR report also condemns the use of the Official Secrets Act “to frustrate former employees of the Crown from bringing into the public domain issues of genuine public interest”, and notes that “disclosures of information are penalised even where they are not harmful to national security”.
On top of all this is the “Eady effect”, following Justice Eady’s judgment in the Max Mosley case against the News of the World, which seemed to imply that reporting anyone’s sex life would be a breach of privacy. The case was such a bizarre one-off that it was hard to tell what precedents it would set. But along with other current privacy cases – the details of which can’t even be mentioned – we do seem to be entering an uncertain legal twilight area where every step is hazardous and nobody can locate the switch.
Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer, 1975-93, and is Emeritus Professor of Journalism Studies at Sheffield University
Hacks win gold medals in jealousy
The Olympic Games are now a glittering television spectacular – and boy, how some newspapers hate that. Rather than responding in the way they know best, through in-depth analysis, they have taken every opportunity to mock the TV presenters and complain about the number of BBC staff in Beijing. From what I saw, 437 members of staff was the least the corporation needed to put on such informative, entertaining, technically brilliant and swiftly reactive shows.
There was another aspect of the Beijing Games that some papers didn’t know how to deal with: it was a huge success story for Britain. They don’t do national success. One had only to look at the way the sports pages reacted to England’s tame draw at football with the Czech Republic to see that putting the boot in is the default mode of our tabloid press.
Gabby Logan and Sue Barker have rightly been singled out for praise, but not by everyone. The Sunday Times said that, to people under 35, Ms Barker “looks and sounds like their aunt living in Spain”. Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer said Logan wasn’t fit to present because she’d once “appeared in a photospread in GQ wearing a pair of red knickers and a teeny tiny vest”. Come now, hacks, your jealousy is showing.
Every little helps ‘The Guardian’
I hear that Mr Justice Eady, sometimes portrayed as a bogeyman by the press because of his privacy verdicts, has made some robust rulings in favour of The Guardian in its dispute with Tesco. The newspaper admitted it was wrong to accuse Tesco of using complex overseas tax avoidance schemes, apologised and made an “offer of amends”, a new defence designed to speed up libel actions. Tesco neither accepted nor rejected this offer and sued instead for malicious falsehood against the paper and its editor, Alan Rusbridger.
Now, Eady has given Tesco until mid-September to accept or reject The Guardian’s offer. The board meets on 8 September to decide, though the chief executive, Terry Leahy, apparently thinks it’s a matter for him. With possible costs of £4m involved, his board may not agree. Every little helps.
Meanwhile, Eady has halted the malicious falsehood actions on the grounds that the libel case would be enough to restore the company’s reputation and that the courts should not be used for revenge or PR purposes. If Tesco accepts The Guardian’s offer, that’s the end of the case, leaving damages to be assessed. If they decline and go for malicious falsehood, the burden of proof falls on Tesco. It is hard to see how it could prove that an editor deliberately published false information, knowing it was false: why would he? And would the company want a case that revealed its commercial secrets, especially when Private Eye has made fresh allegations about its overseas tax arrangements that Tesco has not challenged?
I was rather harsh on Rusbridger when I last wrote on this subject. I still stand by the principle that editors should carry the can and not blame staff for errors. In the case of a charge of malicious falsehood, however, I can see that an editor can only defend himself by explaining how much, or how little, he knew about the offending story.
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