Michael Williams: Readers' editor

I'd give you the dirt, but it could cost millions

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Psst! Come on, what's the dirt? What's the real story? You must know the inside track. It's a question journalists are often asked, particularly on a weekend like this with PC Plod ready to pay yet another visit to senior figures in the Labour Party. And what's the lowdown on Portsmouth FC manager Harry Redknapp, who had his own collar felt last week?

It's tempting to answer that we hold nothing back and take the view: publish and be damned. But that's rarely possible thanks to the draconian power of the English libel laws of which all newspapers live in dread. This Sunday morning, with many reputations of the wealthy and powerful at stake, m'learned friends will be crawling over every printed word. (And don't assume the political process is exempt: many politicians who are keen to make use of parliamentary privilege inside the House employ lawyers who are busy collecting money from newspapers outside it.)

A high court judge once said: "It is one of the professional tasks of newspapers to unmask the fraudulent and scandalous." And so it is. But under English law the burden of proof if a libel case comes to court lies with the defendant. It goes without saying that a story must be written according to proper journalistic standards. But there also has to be watertight evidence that will stand up in front of a jury, and crucially, witnesses must be prepared to come forward to back the argument. With the prospect of damages and costs running into millions, it is hardly surprising that many editors back off.

So, I hate to admit it (let alone provide fuel for conspiracy theorists) but this does allow for the existence of a kind of "inside track" for those in the know and there are many quite astonishing things that editors and investigative journalists are party to, but which will never be published.

Sometimes this material finds its way on to the internet, but mostly, if it appears in print at all, it is in such neutered form as to be of little worth. Commander John Yates "Yates of the Yard" who investigated Labour's last funding dbcle told a select committee the other day that there is a stack of unseen material from his inquiries. But now there will be no charges, and we are unlikely ever to read it.

You may see these restraints on publication as a good thing and so they are if there is any invasion of privacy or they relate to tittle-tattle about celebrities. But it is a system that also allows the baddies to go unpunished. For years, there was strong evidence about the misdeeds of the late Robert Maxwell and the shenanigans surrounding the former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken. But dire threats from their lawyers meant they went unexposed. Before his recent trial, no newspaper was willing to take on Conrad Black while he threatened to sue everybody between here and Toronto.

By the way, did you hear about the leading churchgoing politician who was caught with his mistress snorting... (sorry to stop it here, but I have just felt the hand of our legal manager on my shoulder).

Email readerseditor@independent.co.uk

Message Board: Can horse power oust the gas-guzzlers?

News that dozens of French towns are using horse-drawn carts for waste collection and street-cleaning, to cut CO2, had bloggers racing to ios.typepad.com

Greenman

It sounds nuts, and there are some obvious problems, but we're not talking about horse travel being the only way of doing things; rather, it would be part of the general transport network. It wouldn't be suitable for all towns, either.

Nicholas Spies

The Old Order Amish of Pennsylvania and elsewhere decided in the 1870s to resist the blandishments of promoters of modernity and have never looked back (or is it forward?). It would be easy to restore horse-drawn trolley buses.

Sam Basso

Just wait until the enviro-wackos face off again the animal rights wackos on this one. The is the kind of foolish thing that happens when emotionalism overrides good sense.

Harry Bondy

Horses are a reasonable alternative for towns while mass transit is a reasonable means of transport for big cities.

Edith Crowther

The French missed every chance they ever had to live sustainably, building nuclear power stations. And as a major arms manufacturer they create 1,000 other hells all over the world. A few horses are not going to paper over this.

•••

Conan Corrigan

I have had enough with the parking tickets that my employees keep collecting. Getting a fleet of welsh cobs and carts would not only save the environment, but I think they wouldn't be clamped, towed away or fined.

munky

Can the big picture be changed by small and incremental changes at the lowest levels? I'd like to think yes, but realism suggests no. But hurrah for the horse and a stable economy...

Joe Noory

Unit of work for unit of energy, horses could never have been more efficient than fuel-fired engines, or they would not have been phased out of use.

To have your say on this or any other issue visit www.independent.co.uk/IoSblogs

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