TALKING POINT: Accurate stories will stop libel actions

How sad that Press Gazette should be espousing the campaign for CFA reform instead of championing the real problem behind the whole libel situation. The answer surely is simple – journalists and newspapers merely need to get their stories right. And apologise when they get it wrong.

Making sure that the copy is 100 per cent accurate and based on fact would make most libel cases evaporate – and the CFA problem would virtually disappear with it. For Harvey Kass of Associated Newspapers to be quoted as saying that the cost of defending an article could equate to 100 journalists salaries, is the height of irony.

Is he really suggesting that if libel actions stopped, Associated would actually employ 100 more journalists? Pull the other one, Harvey.

If Associated really felt that then why doesn’t it use some of its money to employ extra journalists to give them all time to get their stories right, instead of going out to fulfil some news editor’s dream of what the story should be?

I recently brought a libel action against Associated and was persuaded to use the CFA route. After exhausting myself over a period of eight years trying to correct the lies being told about me by a former client of my broadcast agency, I was faced with no alternative but to resort to law for recompense – and if someone else was prepared to underpin the cashflow, why not?

My only objective in those early days was to get an apology – but the verbal fencing and snide responses from managing editors and their like made it obvious that I wasn’t going to get anywhere. (Why are newspapers so afraid to say ‘sorry, in the rush to publish we got some facts wrong”?)

Goaded

Indeed, most of the letters received from newspaper legal departments over those eight years actually goaded me with phrases like: ‘If you feel we have libelled you, your remedy is in the courts…’So, I ended up taking that only route to redress – the courts – with the consequent two-year disruption in my life.

For most people, the cost of taking action against a powerful, wealthy news organisation is prohibitive. The CFA provides a perfect opportunity – not only to the impoverished, but to people (like me) with more substantial funds at their disposal – to challenge untrue stories.

But believe me, there are downsides to the CFA for the claimant as well, and it’s certainly not true to say that a CFA-led case will leave you untouched, both financially or physically.

And, of course, if you lose you still have the substantial costs of the newspaper’s legal team to pay, an issue which still turns some of the most staunch litigitants away from the legal route. How dare Jaron Lewis of Reynolds Porter Chamberlain look down his nose at ‘impecunious litigants’– what does being poor have to do with seeking justice? Is the law only for the rich?

At 14 years old, I was a shiny-eyed aspirant journalist, eager to climb the slippery pole by doing weekend shifts at my local press agency. By 17, I had a weekly column in a prominent northern Sunday newspaper – and was chasing missing train robbers, pursuing lying, war ministers, reporting strange Gretna Green weddings and Lake District climbing accidents.

Every step of the way, I was kicked, harassed and threatened by mouth-foaming news editors if I didn’t get the facts, all the facts, and get them right. I learned the hard way – and even had my first libel action threat at 18 (which I headed off with a rather crawling follow-up piece).

But the most essential thing was that by professional guidance I learned how to get it right and keep my newspaper clients out of the courts.

In my recent case against Associated, I took action after eight years of trying other routes. I offered a settlement at every step of the way – and was rebuffed every time. And so the costs spiralled. And, horror of horrors, dear reader, I won. The story was wrong and defamatory.

And did I get my apology? No – even though 12 men and women decided very quickly and very much in my favour and gave me more in damages than I was able to carry home from the court.

The CFA might have allowed my lawyers to fill their baths with champagne – I just about broke even. But at least I had my day in court (five days actually). And did the Daily Mail employ any more journalists as a result, to ensure it got it right in future? I doubt it… and I suspect its profit and loss account hardly showed a blip.

How to do away with the ‘curse’of CFAs? Stop writing and publishing rubbish, make newspapers responsible for their actions, make libel damages related to newspaper profit levels – with a percentage of the money going into a public libel litigants’ fund (that would reduce CFAs) – and give the courts the power to order published apologies equal to the damage caused by, and the size of, the original article.

Genuine journalists need not be afraid.

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