I’ve just got back from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee meeting on press standards, privacy and libel in Whitehall.
The meeting was split into two sittings: the first with journalists, and the second with members of the Press Complaints Commission and the Press Standards Board of Finance.
The journalists’ panel addressed an issue very close to Index’s heart: the UK’s defamation law, and its chilling effect on reporters and editors.
Jeff Edwards of the Mirror told how his paper sometimes found itself shying away from even seemingly innocuous stories about the super-rich, such was the fear of massive legal fees should the subject take umbrage.
Sean O’Neill, crime and security editor of The Times, went further, saying that the use of Conditional Fee Agreements in libel cases is ‘distorting journalism and justice’. He claimed ‘predatory lawyers’ were ready to pounce on newspapers, particularly newspapers that attempted to link certain individuals to Islamist terror and extremism.
On the issue of ‘prior notification’ of stories, which Max Mosley had raised as a possible remedy for the publication of stories that invade privacy, Edwards pointed out that enshrining such a system could prove unworkable: people who knew they were to be the subjects of stories could simply make themselves unavailable to the newspaper, turning off their phone, leaving journalists on a deadline hamstrung.
The Guardian’s Bad Science columnist, Ben Goldacre, raised the idea of a press small claims court, where claims of defamation could be settled quickly, with minimal fees.
The second session focused on the role of the Press Complaints Commission. Under sustained questioning, PCC chair Sir Christopher Meyer launched a sound defence of the PCC and press self-regulation, saying it was the only way to protect free expression while simultaneously encouraging responsible journalism.
Responding to the increasingly multi-platform nature of newspapers, (the Sun’s new online radio show, will for example, be subject to the PCC) Meyer said he hoped that one day soon Ofcom would ‘move out of content’, allowing all media to self regulate.
You can watch the meeting here