Archive for February, 2009
Today was a day for media lawyers.
There are two sorts of media lawyers. Those who tend to work for publishers (nb. news organisations), and those who tend to work against publishers (e.g. Carter Ruck, Schillings). Both appeared today in front of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
Funnily enough, they didn’t agree.
Media lawyers for the press told the CMS Select Committee (based on reports, not on transcripts – though rather wonderfully, the proceedings can be viewed on the HofC video player) that libel costs were constraining press freedom because papers, especially regional papers, are not publishing stories that they are anxious could provoke a legal challenge (see journalism.co.uk).
Media lawyers against the press told the Select Committee that legal action was often only necessary because, in the case of tabloid newspapers ‘As a policy they don’t notify. Victims – whether it’s a celebrities or anyone else, they aren’t told in advance. The damage is done, sometimes permanently’ (Mark Thomson, Carter Ruck, from Press Gazette).
Meanwhile, while lawyers made their case in front of the Select Committee, the government seemed to have already made its mind up about one issue. It would, according to Press Gazette, take steps to limit libel costs ‘unless compelling arguments emerge against doing so’. It based this ‘decision’ (is it a decision or a procrastination of a decision?) on the Ministry of Justice’s libel consultation paper.
If so, it should hurry up and take action so that the arguments about the principles behind Conditional Fee Agreements and about legal precedents surrounding privacy and public interest, can be discussed without being muddied by legal fees.
Even better if it would shift attention to the points Marcus Partington raised about the reluctance of newspapers to use the Reynolds defence and make precedents on that defence. Their reticence, according to Partington, is because using this defence means ‘you’re on a back foot’ (from Journalism.co.uk). This is a great shame because a better definition and understanding of the public interest defence would give journalists more confidence if threatened by legal action.
I’ll detail elsewhere some of the things that have happened in the past week, but for now I thought it might be worth linking to some of the coverage (not a comprehensive list):
If a newspaper or magazine publishes something inaccurate, misrepresentative, or unfairly intrusive about you, then there ought to be someone independent and effective that you can go to for redress.
Today we (the Media Standards Trust) are publishing a report – A More Accountable Press – that assesses the current system of press self-regulation, as led by the Press Complaints Commission. It concludes that, as it stands, this system is neither independent nor effective.
The current system is paid for by the newspaper industry, its rules are written by working newspaper editors, and almost half the Commission itself is made up of newspaper and magazine editors.
You would be forgiven, as a member of the public, for thinking that the system was geared more towards protecting the interests of the press than the public.
And, were you to look into it further, you’d become even more convinced of its partiality. Right now, if you make a complaint, you have about a 250:1 chance of getting an adjudication in your favour (based on the 16 successful adjudications out of 4,340 in 2007, Annual Report). Those are pretty terrible odds. Not surprising then that many people are now choosing to go to court instead.
The failure of the current system to offer the public fair redress is not only bad for the public, it’s bad for journalists. It undermines people’s trust in journalism. A couple of weeks ago an international poll found the UK media was amongst the least trusted in the world (Edelman poll, results publishing in PR Week).
A national survey commissioned by the Media Standards Trust in December, and conducted by YouGov, was similarly depressing. It found that 75% of the public think newspapers publish stories they know to be inaccurate. 70% of people believe there are far too many instances in which newspapers invade people’s privacy (full results can be found at the back of the report).
Nor does a poor system of self-regulation provide journalists with an adequate defence from the State, from the law (in the case of public interest journalism) – or even from their own proprietors.
This report – ‘A More Accountable Press’ – analyses what’s wrong with the current system. Now we plan to think about how to make it better.
From today we’ll be asking news organisations, regulators, journalists and the public how to address the problems we’ve identified. If you have any thoughts as to how things can be improved, please get in touch.