UK: Leading musicians call for Pussy Riot release

Several leading musicians have called on Russian president Vladimir Putin to ensure the three members of Russian punk group Pussy Riot, in court on charges of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”, are given a fair hearing. In a letter to the Times (£) today, musicians including Alex Kapranis of rock band Franz Ferdinand, Johnny Marr of the Smiths and The Who’s Pete Townshend, said the charge against the trio was “preposterous”. “We believe firmly that it is the role of the artist to make legitimate political protest and fight for freedom of speech,” the signatories added.

Pussy Riot spoke to us exclusively in May, read the interview here.

Plus: Pussy Riot versus the religarchy – feminists punks take on Russia’s church and state

Flood ruling welcome, but battle for a proper public interest defence goes on

The UK Supreme Court has today upheld the “Reynold’s Defence” claim made by The Times in the libel case of Flood v Times Newspapers Limited (background here).

The judgment has been welcomed by many (read Siobhan Butterworth at Guardian Law), and it’s certainly gratifying that journalists acting in a responsible manner attempting to get to the bottom of a difficult story have eventually been vindicated, but this is not a moment for unqualified celebration.

If anything, it simply demonstrates the severe limitations of the Reynolds Defence. Only if you’re a newspaper with deep pockets, willing and able to take the case all the way to the Law Lords (as in the case of Jameel) or today’s Supreme Court, can Reynolds work.

The Reynolds Defence picks out 10 key criteria in judging whether a publication can be said to be acting in the public interest. These are:

  1. The seriousness of the allegation. The more serious the charge, the more the public is misinformed and the individual harmed, if the allegation is not true.
  2. The nature of the information, and the extent to which the subject-matter is a matter of public concern.
  3. The source of the information. Some informants have no direct knowledge of the events. Some have their own axes to grind, or are being paid for their stories.
  4. The steps taken to verify the information.
  5. The status of the information. The allegation may have already been the subject of an investigation which commands respect.
  6. The urgency of the matter. News is often a perishable commodity.
  7. Whether comment was sought from the plaintiff. He may have information others do not possess or have not disclosed. An approach to the plaintiff will not always be necessary.
  8. Whether the article contained the gist of the plaintiff’s side of the story.
  9. The tone of the article. A newspaper can raise queries or call for an investigation. It need not adopt allegations as statements of fact.

10. The circumstances of the publication, including the timing.

These are hurdles which may be applicable to people operating in well-resourced newsrooms with proper processes in place. But as we have seen in recent years, an increasing number of libel cases have been taken against comment writers, human rights groups and bloggers who are simply not in the same position to make the necessary steps to fulfil Reynolds. Furthermore, as Lord Hoffman has acknowledged, the Reynolds Defence can be seen as a series of obstacles as much as guidelines. And the steps do not, in and of themselves, constitute a public interest defence.

Index, as part of the Libel Reform Campaign, has been persistent in calling for a strong public interest defence. The Defamation Bill as it currently stands merely codifies the Reynolds Defence, making it likely that it will become even more difficult for smaller media organisations and individuals to use the defence. The Libel Reform Campaign has argued for a fairer and simpler public interest defence where the defendant would be required to demonstrate that publication is on a matter of public interest. If the defendant is successful in proving this, then he or she would only lose the case if the claimant was able to show that publication was irresponsible. If the Defamation Bill makes it to the Queen’s Speech, then the next hurdle will be to lobby for a true public interest defence to which everyone has access, not only those who can afford to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Times crime editor warns of "chilling effect" of Leveson Inquiry

The crime editor of the Times has said the “chilling effect” of the Leveson Inquiry and the Metropolitan police’s “internal clampdown” has led to there being “virtually no social contact with officers”.

“In the current climate, if you arranged to meet an officer you’d be looking over your shoulder the whole time,” Sean O’Neill told the Inquiry this morning.

He expressed his fear that building up a relationship of trust with contacts would be “seriously inhibited” if it were impossible to meet them for coffee, noting that he had “bought officers and staff cups of coffee, pints of beer, lunches and evening meals”.

He emphasised the need for crime correspondents to be able to talk freely and openly with officers. “You’re in this game not just for five minutes; you need to talk to people for years and years and years,” he said.

In his written evidence, O’Neill added that the Met’s institutional instinct was to be “closed, defensive and secretive”, adding that such an attitude “is reflected in a tense relationship with the media.”

He told the Inquiry: “the last time I met an officer we met a very, very long way from Scotland Yard because he was so nervous abut meeting me and that anyone would see him,” adding that the officer in question was “perfectly honourable”.

O’Neill also slammed the Filkin Report into press-police relations as “patronising and ultimately dangerous for future accountability of the police”. He compared a passage of the report to “an East German Ministry of Information manual”, arguing that the document has “already created a climate of fear in which police officers —who may want to pass on information that is in the public but not the corporate interest — are afraid to talk to the press.”

He added that report was insulting to female reporters, saying that it implied crime correspondents were “a bunch of women in short skirts flirting”.

“An aggressive and inquisitive press is one of the mechanisms society has for holding the police to account and contact between journalists and officers is just one of the ways we do that,” O’Neill wrote in his witness statement.

“Allowing chief officers to clamp down in a draconian manner on the flow of information, as Filkin recommends, would be a retrograde step.”

O’Neill said he felt now was the time for more information and scrutiny around policing and more open channels of communication.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Times lawyer Brett faces grilling at Leveson Inquiry

Alastair Brett, former legal manager at the Times, faced an intense grilling at the Leveson Inquiry today over the circumstances in which a reporter at the paper used email hacking to reveal the identity of anonymous police blogger, NightJack, in a 2009 story.

Former Times reporter Patrick Foster had identified the blogger as DC Richard Horton by gaining access to an anonymous email account run by Horton, the Inquiry heard last month.

Brett told the Inquiry he was “furious” with Foster when he approached him about the story and asked him if he had broken the law or if there was a public interest defence he could rely on. “I told him he had been incredibly stupid. He apologised, promised not to do it again,” Brett wrote in his witness statement.

“I was told it was a one-off occasion,” he said, “and I thought ‘I’ve got to tell him you cannot behave like this at a proper newspaper’.”

Email hacking is a breach of the Computer Misuse Act and does not have a public interest defence. Brett conceded he was unaware of the Act at the time.

He said Foster told him he could identify NightJack using publicly available sources of information. Brett told Foster that if this were possible then the Times would be able to publish the story, provided the reporter put it to Horton beforehand.

A stern and incredulous Lord Justice Leveson argued that the Times had misled the High Court over the unmasking of NightJack in their fight to overturn an injunction brought by Horton. He said Foster “used what he knew and found a way out to achieve the same result.”

Brett maintained Horton had been identified legitimately. “No he hadn’t, with great respect,” Leveson responded.  “He couldn’t put out of his mind that which he already knew.”

Leveson also accused the Times of exposing wrongdoing “on the basis than an individual would not seek redress.”

“What the Times have done,” the judge said, “doesn’t that mean you’re justifying any route you wish to take to get a story provided it is true?”

Brett concluded the heated session by stressing he did not condone Foster’s methods. “In 33 years I was at the Times this was the one and only case I had,” he said. “God I wish I could have done without it.”

“If you could have been in the room with me and Patrick, I mean, the air was blue,” he said.

Earlier today the Inquiry heard from Daily Mail associate news editor and former crime editor Stephen Wright, who warned against examining contact between the police and the media “to the nth degree”, suggesting that rules banning informal contact between the two might be “abused by senior officers who seek to control the information flow.”

“It could lead to a corruption of a different kind,” he added.

The Inquiry continues on Monday.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson