Archive for the ‘libel law’ tag

What’s to stop the press ‘monstering’ the next Jo Yeates suspect?

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This post was first published on the INFORRM blog on Friday 7th January

Christopher Jefferies, arrested last week and questioned about the murder of Bristol landscape architect Jo Yeates, expects to be cleared of any involvement in her murder within days, it has been reported. The police can find no evidence or motive connecting him to her murder.

Yet only a week ago, as soon as he was arrested, Jefferies was presumed guilty by many media outlets. ‘Weird, posh, lewd, creepy’, The Sun called him, before quoting various unnamed sources who made him out to be just the type who might commit murder.  “You didn’t want him to come near you” one was quoted as saying, “He was very unkempt and had dirty fingernails. He was weird”. Another quoted unnamed source said that “He was fascinated by making lewd sexual remarks. It was really disturbing.”

Despite the lack of evidence the press sought to use any facts known about Jefferies as proof of his guilt. An incriminating Mirror headline read ‘Chris Jefferies’ “favourite” poem was about killing wife’. Quite a leap given the paper was referring to the Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, not such a surprising choice of poem for an ex-English teacher. It was a little like saying a historian who writes about Hitler must be a Nazi. In The Times a headline read, ‘Strange Mr Jefferies knew boyfriend was away’, implying that this information implicated him in the murder. This despite the fact that Yeates had reportedly announced on her Facebook profile that she would be alone that weekend.

But what is to stop the press acting in the same way – or worse – towards the next suspect in the Yeates case? Let’s not forget that Jefferies is hardly the first to have been presented in this way. Robert Murat’s life will never be the same after the press went for him after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Previous to Murat there was Tom Stephens (falsely suspected of being involved in the Ipswich murders), and there have been others – not necessarily accused of murder – whose lives have been blighted by false accusations (such as the Tamil hunger striker in Parliament Square accused by The Sun and The Daily Mail of secretly breaking his fast).

The law intended to prevent, or at least dampen, this sort of trial by media – the Contempt of Court Act 1981 – is no longer effective. This is partly due to its limited use since 1981, but mainly to developments in technology and publishing; such that the law is now extremely difficult to police and almost impossible to prosecute.

It is certainly clear the tabloids now set little store by the Act. Kelvin McKenzie, columnist and ex-editor of The Sun, speaking on Radio 4’s The Media Show this week, said Contempt of Court is an ‘inconsequential piece of law now… and if it wasn’t inconsequential before, the online world makes it ridiculous’. ‘Allow newspapers to continue with their excess’, McKenzie continued, ‘because excess is part of free speech’ (The Media Show, 5-1-11).

If the Contempt of Court Act will not dampen this sort of reporting will media culture? Will those within the press look at the treatment of Jefferies, Murat, Stephens and others and be more reticent before assuming the next person’s guilt? There is no doubting the material effect the reporting can have on people’s lives. Robert Murat said his ‘life will be scarred forever’ by the coverage. The Tamil hunger striker was ostracised by his community and said he considered suicide.

But it is unlikely our media culture will prevent this. Indeed some of the journalists reporting on Christopher Jefferies previously reported on the McCanns and Robert Murat, so they must have been well aware of the dangers of jumping to ill-founded conclusions and the damage it can do (notably Gary O’Shea, The Sun and Ryan Parry, The Mirror).

Not only is our media culture unlikely to prevent this, there is a good chance it could get worse. Some of those publishing online and on social networks certainly did not feel constrained even by the ghost of the Contempt Act, accepting the newspapers’ headlines and assuming Jefferies’ guilt. The sense of a growing consensus of someone’s guilt cannot but help encourage mainstream media to go further – buoyed by the public’s apparent acceptance.

Perhaps self-regulation of the press could slow or reverse this? Since the law is such a blunt instrument for dealing with the media it is, in general, much better that the press deal – and are seen to be dealing – with things themselves.

Unfortunately, the way self-regulation is currently structured, this is unlikely to happen. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) does work behind the scenes when there are media feeding frenzies (such as contacting the local police and offering its services). But, as we saw in the case of the McCanns and Robert Murat, its effect is often very limited. Moreover, its powers are highly constrained. It is loath to intervene while a case is live, and after the event, the most redress it can offer is the publication of a correction or apology (which does not have legal backing).

What about libel law? As currently constituted libel law is complex, anachronistic, time consuming and eye-wateringly expensive. It has been used by powerful organisations and individuals as a tool to shut down debate about science and to prevent publication of reports of significant public interest by NGOs. It is in need of reform and, going by what Nick Clegg said at the Institute of Government this week, it will be.

Yet it is also one of the only means people like Christopher Jefferies have of seeking  some form of redress after being ‘monstered’. Robert Murat pursued his case in the court, on the basis of a  Conditional Fee Agreement, and received a settlement of £600,000.

Plus, ‘will we get sued?’ is one of the few things the press still worry about before they publish. Remove this risk and there is very little to stop them publishing more of these kind of stories.

Reform of libel law is necessary and overdue. But, in the process of reform we need to make sure that people like Jefferies, Murat and others do not lose any form of redress against monstering by the press.

Written by Martin Moore

January 11th, 2011 at 10:04 am

Reform or risk irrelevance

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[This piece was first published on Comment is Free on Wednesday 24th February]

And now the hard work of reform begins. The evidence of the need for radical change to the current system of press self-regulation continues to mount – particularly with publication of today’s damning Culture, Media and Sport select committee report. But the reaction of many of those within the press shows how much resistance there still is to change.

One of the most important things the select committee report has done is link reform of libel law with reform of press self-regulation. The two have to happen hand-in-hand, as Paul Farrelly made clear. The huge costs of libel law are, as the select committee found, threatening free speech – especially in important areas of public interest like scientific discussion. But if the law is reformed, as it needs to be, practical alternatives need to be found that will give the press pause before publishing stories that may be highly intrusive or inaccurate. And, if a newspaper does publish something that is intrusive or inaccurate, there need to be effective systems in place to make the paper accountable and help ensure it does not happen again.

Independent press self-regulation should be this alternative. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is a complaints mediator, not a self-regulator. As the select committee report says (and the Media Standards Trust stated in our report last month), this is a valuable service and one that the PCC works very hard at performing.

The public recognise the importance of independent self-regulation, as opposed to government regulation, but expect more than the current system delivers. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI last month (commissioned by the Media Standards Trust) found that more than half the public (52%) want the press regulated by an independent self-regulatory body run by those independent of the newspaper industry. This contrasts with only 8% who want a newspaper industry complaints body set up and run by the newspaper industry, as at present (Ipsos MORI 980 person face-to-face survey in January 2010, commissioned by MST).

Regulation carries with it a wider remit than mediation. A self-regulatory body needs to monitor compliance with a code of practice, report regularly on breaches in the code and conduct investigations where there is significant public concern about wrongdoing. This is not a personal view, but reflects the attitude of the public. Of those interviewed, 73% thought that monitoring compliance with the code and conducting investigations should be the chief purpose of an independent regulatory body. Only 12% expected its main role should be to mediate complaints between newspapers and complainants, as at present.

There is now a real opportunity for reform. The current governance review, announced by the PCC last August, is looking at how to make the PCC more transparent and accountable, and at whether to increase its remit. Based on the written submissions it has received (including one from the Media Standards Trust), and on the strong criticism of the current system by the select committee report, it should feel empowered to make far reaching and radical recommendations.

There is no need to resort to statutory regulation to strengthen the current system. This is a myth promoted by defenders of the status quo which is misleading and unhelpful. The current system can be changed significantly yet remain entirely self-regulatory. The PCC could, for example, have a ladder of remedies that were gauged according to the gravity of the offence. For the most serious it could levy financial penalties, as suggested in today’s report.

Still, the hostile response of News International to the select committee report, and the skewed coverage in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun, indicates the lack of enthusiasm within the industry for change. News International accused the report of resorting to “innuendo, unwarranted interference and exaggeration” and of pursuing a “party political agenda”. This is a remarkably aggressive response to a cross party select committee. Though it also seems like a healthy endorsement of the select committee’s comment that News International’s behaviour “reinforces the widely held impression that the press generally regard themselves as unaccountable and that News International in particular has sought to conceal the truth about what really occurred”.

The opportunity for reform will not last long. Indeed, John Kampfner suggested that this may be “the last opportunity to show that self-regulation can work”. The freedom and tensions of the net are such that some publications will increasingly question the value of press self-regulation. Unless there are clear benefits to being part of the current system, such as the reduction of the cost burden of defamation to members, then outlets will leave and the system will become progressively irrelevant.

Written by Martin Moore

February 24th, 2010 at 5:53 pm

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