Rusbridger: UK legal system punishes decent journalists

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger condemned the “feeble” Press Complaints Commission last night and struck a dischordant note amid the chorus of press criticism over injunctions being used to safeguard the privacy of celebrities.

Delivering the Anthony Sampson lecture at City University, he noted that many injunctions are taken out to protect victims of blackmail and also pointed out that the privacy provisions of the Editors’ Code of Practice – which all nearly all UK newspaper owners have signed up to – is almost identical to that in the Human Rights Act.

Rusbridger also made the case for more legal protection for investigative journalism at a time when the Draft Defamation Bill is going through parliament. And he noted that the only way The Guardian could safely publish its Wikileaks revelations was by partnering with the New York Times and benefiting from the USA’s more liberal legal climate when it comes to press freedom.

He said: “We weren’t sued over Wikileaks. But, over a period of months, I was given some blood curdling learned opinions on what might happen to the Guardian – and me personally – if we persisted in our intended course of publishing. The reason we decided to partner with the New York Times was a simple one.

“We suspected that, if we went it alone under the framework of laws governing newspapers in this country, we simply wouldn’t be allowed to get away with it. We would be sued or injuncted or prosecuted, or all three. It seemed a good idea to harness the whole exercise to a country with extremely robust media laws rather than risk it all on the quick sands of the British legal system.”

Rusbridger listed the various very costly libel battles he has been involved with as editor of the Guardian – from Neil Hamiltion in 1996 to Tesco in 2008. Interestingly, he noted that for all its legal entanglements The Guardian has never been sued for breach of privacy.

He said: “The overwhelming majority of these cases involved decent journalists trying to write about serious things about which the public ought (in my opinion) to know. We simply can’t continue to make the risks of doing this sort of journalism so punitively expensive, time-consuming and unpredictable.”

When it comes to privacy, Rusbridger argued that if the press wants greater protection from ‘super injunctions’ when writing about public figures – it may need to agree a legal definition of the public interest.

Talking about the PCC, he said: “Fourteen years after everyone told us that the PCC had reformed standards in the press and that the age of bad behaviour was over we can see better what a hollow claim that was. We can see how ineffective the PCC itself was in stopping the worst practices – or of even knowing about them; or even having much curiosity about them… far less any effective mechanism to find out what had been going on under their noses.”

And on The Guardian’s now two-year-old investigation into phone-hacking and the News of the World he said: “We now know, for instance, that one newspaper employed at least four private investigators – one of them fresh from seven years in jail for blackmail and perverting the course of justice – to systemically hack, track, blag and otherwise pry into the private lives of numerous people in public life. From royalty, through politics to celebrities and blameless people who just happened to be caught up in the news, such as the relatives of the two Soham girls murdered by Ian Huntley.

“…we are learning about an attitude to privacy that was evidently quite widespread among journalists: that, when push comes to shove, there’s no such thing. If you’re rich, famous, powerful – or even just newsworthy – then you forego the expectation that any aspect of your life should be shielded from the public gaze. One has to suspect that that was the prevailing belief in the News of the World newsroom for some years.”

Rusbridger described the draft Defamation Bill has having promising provisions on responisible journalism, single online publication, honest opinion, the ‘substanial harm test’ (stopping smaller libels from proceeding) and on libel tourism.

But he said it doesn’t go far enough with nothing in it on costs or stopping huge corporation likes Tesco from suing newspapers.

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