Archive for the ‘public’ tag

The public and libel reform – debate tonight

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This post was first published on the Media Standards Trust website on Tuesday 11th January

Tonight we have partnered with INFORRM to organise a debate, hosted by Gray’s Inn, about the implications of libel reform for the public.

‘Libel reform: in the public’s interest?’ approaches the question of reform rather differently than most. Rather than pit publisher vs published against, or claimant vs defendant, this is more about the little guy vs the big guy. The scientist vs the libel threat from Big Corp (e.g. Peter Wilmshurst vs NMT). The falsely accused member of the public vs the barons of mainstream media (such as Robert Murat, or Tom Stephens).

As such the questions the debate will be asking include things like:

  • If libel reform goes through as proposed, will that spell the end of Conditional Fee Agreements (No Win No Fee) and, as a consequence, significantly reduce access to justice for people like Robert Murat and Christopher Jefferies (both of whom had access to CFAs)? In which case, will there be any way to seek fair redress in the courts if you’re not rich?
  • Will a reformed libel law actually help to protect bloggers, scientists and NGOs from the threat of expensive libel suits?
  • Should reform aim to provide affordable remedies to members of the public who have been damaged by the publication of false statements (something which the current proposals do not address)?
  • Will reform actually lead to faster and fairer resolution of libel claims?
  • If there is much less chance of being sued, will this lead to more defamatory reporting in the popular press?
  • Could a reformed libel law distinguish between the defamatory claims against a blogger with half-a-dozen readers and the claims against a newspaper with two million readers (and should it)? Perhaps non-commercial publishers (e.g. bloggers & NGOs) should be exempt from libel or have special defences?

The case of Tamil hunger striker, Parameswaran Subramanyam, illuminates some of the questions this debate is trying to address.

Following Parameswaran’s 23 day hunger strike in Parliament Square in 2009, two national newspapers – the Daily Mail and The Sun – alleged that he had broken his hunger strike to eat burgers. This was not true. The papers said they had CCTV evidence to prove it. They did not.

But as a result of the allegations Parameswaran was cut off by the Tamil community and shunned by his family. He considered suicide.

Parameswaran could not afford to go to court to clear his name, but he was able to get legal help using a Conditional Fee Agreement.

In June 2010 Parameswaran won his libel case against the Mail and The Sun. Both papers admitted that the allegations were false, apologized, and agreed to pay substantial damages and legal costs.

In statement following the court ruling Parameswaran said:

I am relieved that this matter is now resolved and I can start to rebuild my life again. The past 8 months have been an unbearable strain on my life, to the extent that at times I have even contemplated taking my own life. As a result of the lies that the newspapers published about me, and through no fault of my own, I have lost friends, been shunned by family members and completely ostracised from the Tamil community.

Would Parameswaran been able to fight his case and clear his name under the proposed new libel laws?

Taking part in tonight’s debate are: Sir Christopher Gray (a barrister and former High Court Judge), Kevin Marsh (executive editor of the BBC’s College of Journalism), Evan Harris (former LibDem MP and key campaigner for libel reform), Zoe Margolis (blogger – ‘Girl with a One Track Mind’ – who won a libel action vs Independent on Sunday), Razi Mireskandari (managing partner of Simons Muirhead & Burton). The debate will be chaired by Baroness Helena Kennedy.

It will be held at Gray’s Inn in London from 18.30 to 20.00. The hashtag for the event is #libelpublic.

Written by Martin Moore

January 21st, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Job ad betrays where PCC loyalties lie

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Anyone unsure where the loyalties of the Press Complaints Commission lie could do worse than look at the advertisement for a new Chair (printed in last Sunday’s Observer newspaper – not online for some reason, not even on the PCC’s own website bizarrely – hence the photo).

Bear in mind that this is a body that is supposed to work on behalf of the public. Indeed when it was set up, in 1991, its responsibility for protecting the freedom of the press – as well as protecting the public – was deliberately removed because it was felt this represented a serious conflict of interest.

Now take a look at the job ad. Nowhere in the ad is there a reference to the public. It tells you the candidate has to be “known to the newspaper and magazine publishing industry”. OK, so it’s clear who your friends are supposed to be. It tells you that the organisation “is funded by a levy paid by newspapers and magazines”. OK, so you know who your paymasters are (and that you’ll receive “Excellent remuneration” – though curious that there is no actual figure given it’s a public body). And it stresses that you “must be able to speak on behalf of the PCC” – rather, one must assume, than on behalf of the public.
But the role of the Chair as a representative of the public as opposed to the press? Absent. The role of the Chair to protect the public from misrepresentation, abuse, intrusion? No sign.
The ad is even disingenuous in its description of the Commission itself. The Commission does not, as the ad suggests “ensure that British newspapers and magazines follow the letter and spirit of an ethical code of practise”. This makes it sounds like it monitors the press and polices infringements of the code. It doesn’t. It reacts to complaints made by the public (more than three quarters of which it throws out before considering).
A few months back Lord Puttnam told the House of Lords Select Committee on Communication that the Press Complaints Commission was ‘essentially a cartel. It is a self-regulatory organisation that will very seldom do anything that will discomfit [the press] or make its life difficult’. Another witness, Alastair Campbell, described it as a ‘cosy media club’ (House of Lords Select Committee, Report on The Ownership of News, 2008)
This job ad does nothing to dispell those accusations.

Written by Martin Moore

September 12th, 2008 at 12:34 pm

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