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Index on Censorship and English PEN championed the cause of libel reform at the Leveson Inquiry this morning.
Index CEO John Kampfner and English PEN director Jonathan Heawood stressed that access to justice needed to be improved, arguing that the costs of bringing libel claims forward are “enormous, frightening and chilling”.
Kampfner said it was also “extremely difficult for media faced with a wall of laws and other restrictions to find out otherwise legitimate information.”
The pair advocated Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) to provide fairer access to justice through offering a fast and inexpensive mediation service. Preliminary research last year showed that 96 per cent of defamation cases could be successfully mediated.
Lord Justice Leveson questioned whether or not wealthier parites would choose to take a claimant to court rather than opt for mediation. Heawood admitted he had “wrestled with” this problem.
Kampfner stressed it would be a “tragedy” if the Inquiry’s ongoing work inadvertently delayed the insertion of libel into the Queen’s speech in May. Lord Justice Leveson replied that libel reform was not directly in his remit, but said he would like to offer a “considered response”.
The pair were also quizzed by counsel Robert Jay and Leveson about the balance of 8 (right to privacy) and Article 10 (freedom of speech). Heawood stressed it was not the case that one was more important than the other, but rather that they are “complementary”.
On privacy, Heawood argued that there was a difference between a harmful publication in a newspaper and “real intrusion.” He cited JK Rowling’s testimony of a slipping a note into her daughter’s schoolbag as “tresspass”.
Kampfner, former editor of the New Statesman, lamented the “weaknesses” in the British media. Recounting his time as a lobby reporter, he described a “culture of services rendered” in political journalism. “Westminster is all about spin doctors feeding journalists on daily basis,” he said, adding that the so-called feral beats of the media were often “locked up”.
But Kampfner warned emphatically against a statutory element of regulation, arguing that it was unnecessary in a “robust environment”. He added that Parliament’s record in navigating the course towards better transparency and accountability was “very poor indeed”.
Citing Hungary’s “seemingly innocuous” co-regulation model, which gives the country’s Media Council the power to impose fines, Kampfner said: “be careful what you wish for.”
Heawood was largely in agreement, arguing that co-regulation was often wrongly seen as a “holy grail” or a “magical third way between statutory and self-regulation.”
Kampfner urged for improved corporate governance and editorial management. “The ‘I was in Tuscany’ excuse from editors is no excuse,” he said. “The buck stops with editors.” He suggested organisations’ quarterly board meetings having an agenda item on standards, and an improved regulator should have a standards arm.
Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson
Index on Censorship Submission to the Leveson Inquiry January 2012
Conor Foley at Comment is Free has a different take from Jonathan Heawood on the Bookseller of Kabul defamation case.
The biggest conceptual weakness of Seierstad’s book is that she does not seem to have understood the absolute centrality of the concepts of “hospitality” and “namos” (literally the “status, chastity, purity, virtuousness, and nobleness of the female members of the family”) to Afghan society. The idea that you could accept someone’s hospitality and then spy on them to violate their namos is completely shocking and makes a mockery of all her other claims of insight into the society in which she was living.
But is it necessarily a writer’s duty to cover all the complexities of every story?
Some may argue that freedom of artistic expression should be completely divorced from such political considerations. However, a writer who chooses to use a conflict as the background for their work cannot plead cultural immunity when real life intrudes on the result.
Plus: you can hear Asne Seierstad and Shah Muhammad Rais disuss the case on the Today Programme here
English PEN director Jonathan Heawood was interviewed on the Little Atoms radio show last week by, er, me, and co-host Neil Denny. We discussed the origins of PEN, perceived limits of free expression, and the changes in censorship from a state-based to community-based phenomenon.
You can listen to the 30-minute interview here.