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    Monday, 30 November 2009

    Momentum for libel reform? or electoral politics?

    Following on from the English PEN / Index on Censorship report on libel reform (and see also the critique offered by science lobby group Sense About Science), Jack Straw (the Justice Secretary) indicated last weekend that he is minded to proceed with "wholesale reform of England’s libel laws".

    Meanwhile Lord Lester of Herne Hill, the Lib Dem peer and eminent human rights lawyer, has promised a libel reform bill to introduce significant changes in the spring.

    The airwaves have carried a fair amount on this theme in recent days. Sense About Science outlined the problems as they see them on the Today programme last week (see here - for now - at 0737). Interestingly, this was followed on the same programme by an interview with Dominic Grieve, the Conservative Party Shadow Justice Secretary (see here at 0848). He was more sceptical of the need for libel reform, offering a lonely voice on the importance of remembering the harms to privacy and reputation wrought by (some) newspapers. Lord Lester offered a (not particularly compelling because overly time-limited) introduction to his line of thinking on the PM programme latter that day (see here). The issues were also aired on the Media Show earlier last month (see here).

    Potted Shakespeare version of Flat Earth News

    Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, gave the NUJ Benn Journalism Lecture in Bristol last Thursday and offered a summary of the argument of his book. He covers the structural tendency towards inaccuracy, a critique of the PCC (and libel law), privacy, various tapping/hacking and data protection scandals, and more...

    If you want a quick insight, you can listen here. [hat tip - Greenslade]

    Monday, 16 November 2009

    two plus two = ?: evidence to the phone hacking inquiries

    The PCC chair, Baroness Buscombe, has made a statement drawing attention to a discrepancy of evidence in the various phone hacking inquiries relating to activities of journalists at the News of the World. The statement notes that the purported police source of the figure of there being 'thousands' of victims of such hacking, had in fact been wrongly quoted. In fact, the source has sought to 'clarify' with/through the PCC, there were only a 'handful' of possible victims.

    Baroness Buscombe proceeded to note that an allegation based on the higher figure had been made to the House of Commons Media Select Committee in the course of its inquiry, and that should the Committee have been misled this would of course be an extremely serious matter. This smacks of playground politics. The impugned allegation was made in evidence by Alan Rusbridger and Nick Davies of the Guardian, who have recently been so critical of...... the PCC.

    Update:
    This story has moved on during the day. Solicitor-advocate Mark Lewis of Stripes Solicitors in Manchester has inferred that Baroness Buscombe's comments related to the evidence that he proffered to the Committee, and has called for the PCC chair to resign in a letter sent to the PCC and the Select Committee chair, John Whittingdale MP. It is a withering attack. A Guardian spokesperson has commented:

    "it is surprising that the PCC should have publicly questioned the evidence a solicitor gave to MPs without even doing him the courtesy of contacting him to seek his version of events",

    while the PCC has issued a mea non culpa.

    Anathema to democracy? the PCC on super-injunctions and more

    In what has been described as a disappointing speech, Baroness Peta Buscombe - the newish Chair of the PCC - has railed against the deployment of so-called 'super-injunctions', describing them as 'anathema to democracy' and asking 'how did it ever come to this'? (1, 2) It is an easy target, but this broad-brush critique seems to overlook two important things. First, that sometimes such injunctions are necessary to protect against the infringement of competing rights. It is the over-free, insufficiently discriminate use of super-injunctions that is the problem not their availability per se. Secondly, she overlooks the fact that it was Parliamentary intervention in the form of the Human Rights Act that has provided the weight behind arguments to persuade the courts of the need for restrictions on speech in some cases.

    A transcript of the speech is available on the PCC website.

    Monday, 9 November 2009

    Inadvertent harakiri?: PCC report on allegations of hacking and tapping

    The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has published its report into the allegations published in the Guardian in July regarding purported instances of criminal newsgathering methods at the News of the World beyond those that saw Clive Goodman and Glen Mulcaire convicted. The inquiry undertaken by the PCC focused specifically on two issues only:


    - whether there was evidence that the PCC had been misled when conducting its earlier inquiry
    - whether there was any evidence that malpractices were ongoing at the NoW.

    The PCC found no new evidence speaking to either point. Moreover, it asserted that the sources relied on by the Guardian were anonymous and untestable.

    The response of the commentariat has been swift. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, interviewed on the Today programme on Radio 4 denounced the PCC [on the link this is listed at 0850, although it was in fact aired earlier]. He indicated that while he was an ardent supporter of self-regulation, the PCC was not properly performing this function. He commented:

    "this report is worse than pointless, its actually rather dangerous for the Press... if you have a self-regulation system that is finding nothing out, and has no teeth, and all the work is being done by external people [lawyers, the police and MPs] its dangerous for self-regulation... I believe in self-regulation, but this is not a regulator at work. The PCC does very valuable work in mediation but regulators have the power to do investigations, they have the power to ask people in... [Q: if you cannot aske the PCC to do this job, who should do it?] well, that's why its so dangerous. The regulator behaving this uselessly I suspect that MPs will start to say that this is not regulation I hope the governance review [currently being undertaken by the PCC] takes this onboard. The PCC has to be better funded so that it has some investigatory mechanism, and so that it doesn't write reports as weak and as lightweight as this... the Press is in a very weak position today because its own regulator, its self-regulation, has proved so weak."

    Rusbridger also offered an extended editorial in the newspaper. The report and inquiry have been criticised by lawyers as "contradictory and self-serving", by MPs on the Culture Committee as a "whitewash", and by the Guardian as "complacent" (1). Nick Davies, the author of the earlier Guardian articles, has set out in a detailed critique, the "more important questions" with which the PCC has failed to engage.

    So what will be the upshot for self-regulation? Is it too much to hope that if the King is dying, we may find ourselves with a new, more fit successor?

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