The many-headed serpent that threatens freedom of the press

Greedy lawyers, 'authoritarian' ministers and hostile police officers are strangling a free press, hears Ian Burrell

The British news media has never been so restricted, beset by the laws of an "authoritarian" government, greedy lawyers and dwindling editorial budgets, according to one of the industry's most important representative bodies.

The Society of Editors has submitted a dossier of evidence to Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, claiming that "meritorious" articles by local newspapers are increasingly being suppressed because of the danger that legal action would bring ruinous costs. The dossier also contains examples of published stories exposing the behaviour of MPs, local authority leaders, owners of professional football and rugby clubs, business leaders and television personalities, which have been settled out of court for financial and not legal reasons, in order to avoid the danger of being bankrupted by the fees of the claimant's solicitors.

Speaking to The Independent on the Society's tenth anniversary, Robin Esser, executive managing editor of the Daily Mail, calls for a concerted effort to ensure that the concept of freedom of expression comes to be regarded as a constitutional right in Britain, as it is in America. He says the current threats to a free press are comparable to a many-headed serpent. "It's a bit like the hydra, every time you cut off one head two more appear ... we've got enormous issues at the moment."

Esser, a former editor of The Sunday Express who is chairman of the society's parliamentary and legal committee, criticises the police for abusing the Protection against Harassment Act 1997 (originally introduced to deter stalkers) and anti-terrorist legislation, in order to hamper the work of journalists. "Situations occur on a fairly regular basis of photographers being prevented from taking pictures in public places, being arrested and having their film taken away or inspected." He complains of "the increasing authoritarianism of the present government which sometimes without realising it, and sometimes realising it, introduces measures which impinge further on the media's rights and duty to ensure open democracy and open justice".

Last week the prominent barrister Ken Macdonald, QC, suggested that the recent growth of privacy legislation was strangling the freedom of the press. "We would pay a very high price indeed for underscoring the marketability of film stars and footballers," he said.

According to Esser, who has worked in Fleet Street for more than 40 years and reported on the first landings on the moon, "I think we are more restricted now than we've ever been before". The Society of Editors, which represents both newspapers and broadcasters, is concerned that the media, already weakened by the impact on editorial resources of falling advertising revenues, is being further cowed by the danger of incurring huge costs from libel actions brought by solicitors under "no win, no fee" conditional fee agreements (CFAs), which allow successful lawyers to double their charges. The issue is being investigated under a Litigation Costs Review being conducted for Mr Straw by Lord Justice Jackson.

The society has submitted to both the judge and Mr Straw a dossier which indicates that the local and regional media, in particular, has become terrified of the prospect of finding itself in court. Cases cited include a light-hearted piece on a local MP's views on expenses, which he complained about, leading to an out-of-court payment of £10,000 plus a bill for £26,000 in costs. Another local paper piece containing comments from a contestant on the BBC show Dragons' Den, who complained he had not been given the financial support promised by the dragons on screen, led to a settlement of £13,000 plus a further £7,000 paid in costs, despite the editor being advised that the piece was probably protected by the libel defence of "fair comment". A daily paper in the North of England paid out £10,000 (plus £7,000 costs) and made a full apology to a professional rugby league player for the local team who it had criticised after he was suspended for foul play by the league disciplinary committee. The settlement was in spite of legal advice that a defence of fair comment had "a high prospect of success".

A Welsh paper which featured a report by a conservation trust criticising plans to develop a building and land once occupied by the poet Dylan Thomas, provoked a writ from the property developer. On being advised of the potential costs under a CFA – where London solicitors can charge £390 an hour and then double the sum with a 100 per cent uplift or "success fee" if they win – the paper caved in, paying £10,000 in damages to the property developer and still incurring £16,000 in costs. The threat of a case brought under a CFA is often enough to ensure a story is withheld altogether. The dossier cites an investigation by a regional Sunday newspaper into a money-making cult, which was not published after the editor was warned that an action would be brought using CFA.

"In the light of this threat, the editor felt obliged to give the undertaking demanded, not because of any concerns about the quality of the journalism, the accuracy of the story, or the public interest, but purely because he feared that an adverse costs order may cause the newspaper to cease publishing," said the dossier. The report also cites the suppression of a story about an offshore company bidding to take control of the local football club. The paper had sought to expose the fact that the company had a subsidiary which had been criticised by business regulators in several EU countries but the article was dropped following a threat of an injunction and libel action.

Tony Jaffa, of Exeter-based solicitors Foot Anstey, who compiled the dossier, says large London law firms have become adept at exploiting the use of CFAs, which were originally introduced to increase public access to justice. He confirms: "The issue of CFAs has become an important tactical weapon in the litigation process."

Esser is adamant there has been a "chilling effect" on local papers and their willingness to investigate. "They will settle or they won't print a story which exposes hypocrisy or double dealing or disgraceful behaviour on the part of public servants, and that is a terrible loss."

The society continues to lobby ministers and their shadow counterparts to remove what it sees as unnecessary shackles on the media. It was exasperated by a backlash against new plans to allow journalists into Family Courts, with judges and officials seeking to maintain a ban on reporting. "It's madness," says Esser. "What newspaper has got people to send along to sit in court and not be able to write a story?"

He is hopeful, though, that progress is finally being made in introducing television cameras into courtrooms. "We feel that will help open justice and bring instant pictures to the public, just as the people in the public gallery can see what goes on. The judges fear some sort of OJ Simpson effect but that really isn't going to happen."

Though proud of the society's achievements over the difficult past decade, Esser knows that the hydra that threatens freedom of the press is far from slain. "There will be two more heads tomorrow," he says. "We have to remain vigilant."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links