Transcript – Press Freedom Q&A

Below is a transcript of the Press Freedom Q&A session

Joanne Cash: And now I’d like to open up to the floor – ok so I’m going to take questions from the gentleman there and followed by the gentleman here in the red shirt and then followed by the gentleman in the white t-shirt – I’ll take those questions first.

Q. Brian Winston: Can I just ask you if there hasn’t also been a change in the notion of distress as a basis for damage. When I was a law student half a century ago more or less, suing for being upset was the only [unintelligible] tort. That is no longer the case and does not that have another chilling effect not so much perhaps strictly in terms of press freedom but certainly in terms of general free expression? It speaks to Mick’s point about damages – the notion of what is damage to reputation – what you can sue for, would now seem to involve, at least at some secret level, the idea that if you get upset by somebody or by something that’s said, without it being monetarily damaging, you can bring an action and is not that a great chill? The difference in culture is for me summed up by the American who said “We didn’t promise you a balanced press, a truthful press, an honest press – all we promised you was a free press”. We’re a very long way from that in this country.

J.C. Great, let’s take this question before we come back.

Q I’m here from the National Secular Society:  you mention the West Midlands Police have actually provoked a debate that is going to be next month in the House of Lords on that disgraceful issue and also with Fitna, we had the disgraceful prospect of an elected MP from another European Country not being able to come into this country. And we’ve got to find a way of cutting through this and the proposal I’d like to make is that we actually try and get a Parliamentary, cross party Parliamentary committee to protect freedom of speech. I also work on the European Fundamental Human Rights Agency and I find the problem there is nobody cares about freedom of speech because it’s not perceived to have a victim and we’ve got to find a way to get people much more concerned about freedom of speech and it was shocking there are no lawyers here, and I have to say Parliamentarians aren’t much better. I think the Parliamentary route is the way through with this to at least raise awareness in Parliament so we can see if we can get some cross-party consensus to solve some of these issues.

JC: So the question is…?

Q: The question is “Is that a good idea?”

JC: Ok great so the final question for now from the gentleman here?

Q: Jonathan Campbell: I’m an investigative journalist and a founding member of organisations causing difficulties for the BBC and its director generals. I’m very much seized by much that’s been said about the threat to the future of sources. If British culture continues in the way that it is, unstopped by conventions and actions  like this it’s over – dead in the water. Encryption is a nice idea. I’ve been teaching it to journalists for the last fifteen years. Furthermore, there’s a law against it -  it’s now enforced, it’s now being used: it’ll become pack and parcel. What I really wanted to just put into the pot for the conclusion is to ask everyone and the speakers why they’re going back to America. What it is about America that’s different: I imagine most of us who have worked there know what it’s like and there is an extraordinary difference. And I actually had to check just a moment ago to make sure that even in the instrument we most value which is the European Convention which is now rather infected, the press doesn’t get a mention. Second, as a sideline to restrictions on Court for poor people, word isn’t there. Go back 220 years to when the United States of America threw off the colonial occupying power and in the first return to the division of the Constitution is perhaps the First Ammendment and it is that which makes the Press a sacred volume in America – in their history, born of our occupation of their lands. It drives almost everything we want on libel, on proportionality, on the protection of sources and protection of operations, so if there was a mission for a new Government that really  is going to reform it is to actually not merely to say we’ll make the European Convention effective – we’ll look at the United States and its example, which is the best in the world….. (5.20)

J.C: Ok, thank you. So I’ll very quickly answer the question about damages because I think it is a technical legal point and I apologise to those of you who are sick of technical legal points  al ready but you can in a libel action claim for  distress and upset caused by the libellous allegation. If there’s a presumption of damage, you don’t have to prove damage so that again is another unfairness to the Press. It’s the only taught that I’m aware of where you have presumed damage and that is still the case and there are aggravated damages where one can claim exacerbated distress if you say the defendant has behaved badly. Ok, now returning to the questions, Nick do you want to take the point about Wilder and the West Midland Police.

Nick: Andrew mentioned the Channel 4 case and perhaps in a funny way it goes back to what the gentleman at the back was saying about distress. We are developing a culture where nastiness is thought to be wrong even if it’s the nasty horrid truth. What happened with channel 4 is they filmed undercover in two Saudi documented finance Mosques – one in Queen Lanes and Regents Park in London. Saudi money pumping into Britain is one of the most under reported stories. If we the British Government was pumping money into Saudi Arabia to teach democracy, rights for women, freedom for gays and all that sort of thing there’d be war. But it’s happening in Britain. Channel 4 recorded it all. Now, being fact-checked by channel 4 is like having a team of demented Inland Revenue inspectors going through your house: it is sheer, bloody Hell.  Lawyers go over it, Programme directors go over it. Everything has to be justified in triplicate and then they do what newspapers don’t have to do: they go to the targets, they go to the people you’re criticising and say: Right, what do you say to this. There’s the right to reply. The idea that a channel 4 programme is anything but distortion, but the police nevertheless refer it to, because its telling a bitter truth about what is going on in Inner City Britain, because its showing the misogyny, the anti-semitism, the racism and homophobia and all the rest of it, that’s somehow nasty: that causes distress. Better to – say the investigative journalists – make up a few illusions than wake up to some hard realities and have an argument. Well, in that case, as the National Secular Society has pointed out, there is no condemnation from Government on this, just as there’s no condemnation when – also in Birmingham, Betsy – a play by a young sikh woman writer, about abuse from old Sikh men is driven off the stage by abusive, old Sikh men. In fact, Fiona McTaggart who was a minister at the time, disgracefully in my view, championed the people who’d driven the play off stage. We see all these attacks on freedom of speech: the one that sticks in my mind was what happened at Escher house, where, apart from one letter by me and one by Megnab de Sai in The Guardian was not mentioned at all. A leading Indian artist, whose name disgracefully escapes me: he’s the grand old man of Indian painting…

-    Emaf Hussain? –

Yep, yes, a massive exhibition of Hussain’s paintings in London, Indian High Commissioner opened it. He’s the first modern but completely recognisably Indian great art figure: he draws on the Indian tradition and Nolde and all sorts of things – he’s wonderful! And because in India a Muslim  politicians had offered a million dollars to anyone who killed the Danish cartoonist, Hindu extremists looked around and thought, well who can we get? And Hussain, because he was born into a Muslim family, was a target for them. And he also painted traditional Hindu goddesses. This exhibition was driven out within a week. There were death threats, there were threats of protest and in Britain now, that just happens. Megnab wrote a letter to the Guardian, I picked it up and wrote a column about it and what’s so shocking is that on the one hand we have this cultural myth about ourselves that we’re so tolerant, that every work of art that appears at the National gallery is always edgy and daring and radical whereas in reality, freedom of speech is being shut down without a squeak from democratic politicians. I’d agree with Duncan, we just need to have an American attitude: America didn’t invent freedom of expression. They were British citizens. They were British citizens revolting against old corruption. And we should look back at our ancestors, see what they did, and start imitating that and say, “look! We have freedom of speech in this country: if you don’t like it, argue back.”

Andrew: Nick’s point about the exhibition at Ada House is an interesting one, and I wrote about that as well, actually. I wrote a piece about the Hindu forum of Britain who are the people who – well, we couldn’t say this because we couldn’t prove it – but we believe them to be the people who organised the threats to do with this exhibition and we certainly had a lot of other evidence to do with their links to various other fundamentalist Hindu organisations. The Hindu Forum of Britain went absolutely ballistic, and their head – a man called Ramish Khalidai – the British head – who’s a member of a fundamentalist Hindu sect called the RSS, he threatened to sue, he threatened to get Hindu newsagents to boycott the Standard, he called this rain of protest down on us. He said “all Hindus must rise up and attack the racist Evening Standard”. Do you know how many emails we got? Well do you know how many Hindu newsagents boycotted The Standard? None. Do you know how many emails we got? Five. The fact is that a lot of these people are empty vessels: their bluff can be called, and when you call it you often find that there’s nothing there- that the average Hindu in this country doesn’t care about Emaf Hussain or about issues  that the religious right want to whip up. And that’s also something that journalists have to learn: sometimes you have to  call their bluff.

Alan: Just very briefly on the three points: there’s the injury to people being upset. We’re being sued at the moment by Elton John who was upset by a spoof piece we wrote, poking fun at his white tiara ball. I mean it would be quite something if you were forbidden for using satire in papers. But that was knocked out in the first court at the cost of £500 an hour. It’s a very live issue.  On Parliament, there is something happening at the moment; one is that Jack Straw is looking at the cost of libel and the other thing is that the culture sport and media comittee are looking at libel and privacy. And there’s wonderful work being done by English Pen and Index on Censorship so this is actually a moment when things might happen so I think anyone who has any influence on any of these bodies should participate in these enquiries. And finally on Duncan’s point on this Article 1,  which probably speaks to a wider point about a written constitution: if you read this wonderful judgement in the Sullivan case that Joanne mentioned. The one book you should read is a wonderful book by Anthony Lewis who is a New York Times journalist called “Make no Law” which is about this fantastic judgement by a Judge called William Brennan, which based itself on the 1st amendment, which is Congress shall make no law to abridge the freedom of press. And that was Brennan’s judgement about public figures and its an absolutely ringing judgement but it bases itself on the constitution.

J.C: Thank you very much to the panel, I’m going to move to this side now for the next few questions.

Q: My name is Lisa Appignanesi, I’m from English Pen and thank you Alan. One of the things its worth just noting in this context is that the difficulty is that its one of the few points in British law where you are guilty until proven innocent. In other words, the defendant is immediately judged guilty. And all the things you’ve all said are absolutely right and we need to get rid of this. But the question I actually wanted to ask is – I know this is not about the BBC in particular, but I have felt with my recent programming with these institutions of ours, that there is a climate of fear and fact checking that has something to do with this whole area of offence and public offence. And one of the things that was said to me when I happened to mention an Armenian group being for Harold Pinter, people said: “Oh no, you mustn’t mention Armenia because the Turks will get upset and that will mean that we’ll have more emails complaining about what we have put out than we’ll have viewers per programme.” So how do we actually extend the openness of our Broadcasting corporations which are after all the ones who speak to even more people than our press, sadly.

JC: Ok, shall we take that first? Anyone like to take that particular point?

Andrew: Well. it goes back to what I was saying about individual lobbies. Sometimes they don’t have the strength they claim like the Hindu forum of Britain, like some of the people around Lee Jasper actually who I wrote about in the Standard last year. They did exactly the same: they called down fire and brimstone and we got virtually no complaints from anybody. Sometimes though, they can mobilise significant numbers  – the Israel Lobby is good at it, the Armenian genocide Lobby is very good at it. The BNP did it actually last week at the Independent. The PCC got the highest level of complaint its ever received about a story: 1000 complaints I think orchestrated by supporters of the BNP. You just have to expose that for what it is, that these are actually orchestrated and that the offence is actually imagined. And I do think people have to be more robust, but I agree with you. I’ve noticed this as a film maker for Channel 4 – they are unbelievably cautious and they are now more cautious.

Nick: Multi-cultural societies need very simple rules. It would be far simpler – I thin there would be far less ethnic or religious tensions in this country if we just said there’s freedom of speech within the normal constraints of  incitement of violence. That’s just the way we do things: we’re British, that’s the way we do it. As soon as you start trying to play one group against another who might cause offence, you enter a world of immense complexity where people can’t speak their mind, as well as a very stilted world. Keep it simple, then it may work.

Lisa: We do have a provision in the law, protecting speech, ridicule all the rest of it: it’s the incitement to religious hatred act and we don’t cite it enough but it is actually the only declaratory motion which says in Parliamentary acts that speech is protected and we should refer to it.

JC: Ok and the gentleman in the blue shirt.

Q: David Blake – I used to be a journalist many years ago and I’ve certainly noticed that since I’ve left, life has become more difficult in terms of judges being more willing to give injunctions to stop things being printed before they appear let alone on the libel front. But I don’t think we should get too hooked on the idea that America is some paradise. Firstly because every day I read of an American newspaper closing. And I think the economic factor is so crucial to all this. And secondly because if you look at – for example, Iraq – most of the discoveries about Iraq came out through the British Media, through the BBC, through the papers, through the Downing street memorandum. IT was ignored totally by the American press. And I think that is because we do have a much more assertive press in this country that is more committed to the issue of free speech but clearly not enough. So my question is what can we do to make the press have more self confidence or more assertion.?

Alan: Well, what you say about the economic circumstances with the press is really true and I don’t think it’s dawning on people yet. It’s just beginning to dawn on MPs that in the next few years they’re all going to lose their local papers. The economic muddle of telling news has gone and all this work that’s been done on digital Britain is tumbling towards some situation where citizens will have access to some form of verifiable information. I don’t know what you can do … Parliament/ somebody has to say, we believe – we will make it easier – we believe in this kind of press. We need to agree rules about what’s private and what’s public. You’ve got that divide in the press at the moment. The Tabloids are incredibly steamed up about privacy – that’s the only thing they care about. Broadsheets not very interested in privacy because we don’t feel that impinges too mch on us – we’re more concerned about libel and all this stuff. But somehow we have to form a common position through a very week self-regulator, so we have to do our bit but I think Parliament and the judges need to say that it is essential that we protect this kind of journalism and we will protect it in order to encourage you. At the moment what happens is that you’re punished for doing the sort of journalism that I think everyone in this room would believe in and that’s why its going to disappear. Not in the long term – its going to disappear very soon.

Andrew: Here’s a thought about a possible new economic model for the press: it doesn’t look likely that many newspapers will be able to survive longterm, because it will soon be impossible I’m sure for many newspapers to be both adequately resourced and profitable so we need to think about a new way to finance newspapers and one way possibly is endowments like American Universities have. You have a large pot of money and you live off the interest – that’s putting it very crudely. You raise money. That may be a way. And that might actually lead to the papers actually being a bit more respected and respecting themselves a bit more.

Alan: Nobody’s got any money Andrew.

Andrew: I know and that is the problem. And I mean, there’s been all sorts of interesting things about us being taken over by a Russian, and maybe everyone’s going to need a sugardaddy at some point.

Chair: We didn’t get an answer to the question about a cross-party..

JC: Oh no Alan said there should be a cross party and I agree. I can only speak for the conservative party but I know from the lobbying we’re doing that I’m pushing at an open door at the moment on the widening of the Rennels privelege and the limitation point I made about the internet and I’m pushing them very hard on the other aspects that I’ve talked about. But I think a cross party committee to some extent already exists in the Culture, Media and Sport committee because it covers all of this but some might say its too wide a remit for that committee and there should be a separate one for the press but definitely I think a cross party movement is essential.

Nick: There was a very encouraging debate in the commons just before Christmas when Dennis McShane for Labour, Michael Gode from the Torys and Norman Lamb from the Liberal Democrats all went for Libel and I’m not at all optimistic that you’ll ever get politicians to -  well we’ve had a privacy law – this is judge-made law.  We’ve gone to being free to like France in about 10 years. I don’t think politicians are going to turn that back because too many of them have had the Press investigate them, investigate their families, and the press go too far in some cases so there’s no way they’re going to do that. On libel, there is some grounds for optimism in that essentially, and to be a bit crude, its being used by the enemies of this country.

Q: You see the thing is, just as an ordinary citizen, I feel powerless. I don’t have time to join all these things – I’m not a journalist. You know, what I like about this convention is that we’re trying to find solutions. And as we talk – and you are, essentially my MP which means I’m very happy that you’re here – that gives me some hope

JC: Thank you.

Q: That gives me some hope because basically I feel fairly depressed by what I’m hearing. It’s very bad news what’s happening to this country. And I can only feel that the power I have is in who I vote for but will it really have an effcect – about the press, but also in general? You know, is there a real commitment? One doesn’t have a lot of trust in terms of what happens.

Q: Another question, I’m Nigel Haver, also from English Pen and I was at the Debate and I was very pleased to see Dennis, Michael etc joining forces on this position but I have to say that the conservatives who were present at that debate, other than Michael, were very very vehement against the need for change, in particular the need for change on costs. As Alan said, the average cost of defending a Libel action in the English and Welsh courts are 140 times those in any other European jurisdiction

JC: Two of the MPs you are referring to have lost the whip as I understand. One of them’s Bob Spink, am I right?
-    Yes.
The third one I didn’t agree. Michael Grove I agree with, Michael’s great on all this stuff. He talks a lot of sense and he will be behind the issues we’re talking about today.
-    Will the Tories reform on costs as well?
Yes, actually I’ve had a talk with David Cameron on that particular issue so that’s coming right from the top: we are open to these debates and we are having these arguments and we are looking at how we can best implement them.

Q. My name is Mandy Pullmer, I’m a director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust. We have recently sponsored a research report at the Reuters Institute on the Study of Journalism, looking at what’s happened to our news and the underlying fragility of the economics of the newsroom is actually quite terrifying buy the question is because of your audience here if you look at that subject, you cannot default to politicians to answer it for you. The media has got to come forward with some ideas as to how it is going to be thought trustworthy and accountable to the British public in order to regain their trust, in order to regain the support from the public that we need at local level, which is disappearing as well as the international level.

Alan: I completely agree. Two very simple things. One, reform the PCC and second, do what we do which is for the last ten years we’ve had an independent Readers’ editor. Somebody has to sit within media organisations who is independent of  the editor who takes a dispassionate view of the facts and if you get it wrong you just correct it, immediately. And those two simple things would do more to restore faith in the media than anything else I think.

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