Libel capital of the world: A town called Sue

The title is short, but its lengthy sub-title is frightening. A new book by famed British media lawyer Geoffrey Robertson shows how defamation and privacy have been weaponised. The book is Lawfare: How Russians, the rich and the government try to prevent free speech and how to stop them.

Robertson, a King’s Counsel and head of Europe’s largest civil rights legal practice, has played a leading role in some of the most celebrated British and European media legal battles of the past four decades. He is co-author of the authoritative book Media Law.

His latest book, which I have just read, is an excoriating indictment of defamation and privacy laws and torts. He writes of the English legal system but many of the laws are reflected by those in New Zealand and the torts form part of the precedents on which our own common law legal system relies.

Free speech has been described as a “quintessentially UK right”, bound to the country’s constitutional foundations (and, by extension, to New Zealand’s legal traditions). Robertson says this is “nonsense”. The Magna Carta was silent on the matter and sixty years later the first law was passed to protect the reputations of ‘great men of the realm’. He then sets out to show how existing libel and privacy ‘rights’ are not only unfit for purpose but have been exploited to the point where they create the antithesis of free speech.

Lawfare – which takes its name from the practice of using legal systems to damage and delegitimise an opponent or deter an individual’s use of their legal rights – describes how English law is being used as a weapon against reporters and news organisations on a scale that seriously threatens investigative journalism. Continue reading “Libel capital of the world: A town called Sue”

TVNZ sends timely reminder on vital news processes

TVNZ’s updated rethink on how it handles stories – a consequence of Radio New Zealand’s controversy over altered foreign news content – is a timely reminder that good journalism relies not only on trust but on checks and balances.

Every functional newsroom relies on trust: It is both top-down and bottom-up. An editor (or whatever newspeak title you wish to create for the person responsible for the overall editorial output) must trust the heads of each part of the editorial structure and, through them, the cascade of staff down to the most junior. Everyone from that junior up must trust the decision-making and stewardship of those above them.

Very occasionally, that trust is broken by someone who – through malfeasance, poor judgement, or human frailty – goes rogue.

That happened at RNZ in June when inappropriate editing of foreign wire stories was discovered. It led to an independent enquiry and a raft of recommendations for change within the public broadcaster. The RNZ enquiry’s report can be found here

No such breakdown of trust occurred at TVNZ. When the RNZ scandal broke, then chief executive Simon Power ordered a review of his own organisation’s handling of news stories. General Counsel (now interim chief executive) Brent McAnulty found no similar breaches of editorial policy but nonetheless made 11 recommendations to improve processes.

McAnulty’s report preceded the release of RNZ’s independent enquiry and TVNZ has now revisited its findings in light of recommendations in that enquiry. The result is a further series of recommendations by current TVNZ senior counsel Michele Lee that have implications for editorial news handling processes. You can find the updated report here

The update recommends refresher training on upward referral and on disinformation, reviewing software and systems, and re-assessing resourcing levels in the newsroom. Continue reading “TVNZ sends timely reminder on vital news processes”

Regional media will need more good bastards like Fred Tulett

I don’t think Fred Tulett got the better of me when we were both newspaper editors but, in death, he has achieved something to which I could never aspire: He filled the front page of his old publication with news of his demise.

I doubt that I will merit a page three brief when I head for the great newsroom in the sky, let alone sole occupancy of the front page of the New Zealand Herald.

Last Wednesday the Southland Times relegated a story about a drink-diver being discharged without conviction (despite being caught driving at double the legal alcohol limit) in order to celebrate the life of the man who had been at its editorial helm for 15 years. On Saturday the paper marked his 50-year career again with another half-page story in the obituaries section.

The author of both pieces, Michael Fallow, observed in the weekend obituary that Fred would have ‘gone crook’ about hogging the front page. And he would have done so with gusto. The man who I described on Facebook last week as “a hard bugger but a good bugger” did not mince his words and the front page was hallowed turf. He would have wanted the drunk driver ‘up front’, or maybe the story of a trainee doctor missing meals to pay her rent.

Fred Tulett certainly had his unique qualities – a voice made for radio that was sentenced to echo off the walls of a newspaper office – but he also represented a class of journalists with two distinct and seemingly mutually exclusive qualities – bloody-minded independence and the willingness to champion a cause. Continue reading “Regional media will need more good bastards like Fred Tulett”

Media blame game in Gaza

Judgemental journalism – a strong presence in today’s media – has met its nemesis in the Israeli-Gaza conflict. News outlets are being called on to choose sides of a circle.

Do they condemn Hamas for the deaths of Israeli citizens, or do they condemn Israel for the deaths of Palestinians in Gaza? Do they label the Israeli dead and kidnapped as victims of terrorism, but the dead and wounded in Gaza as casualties of war? Or should it be the reverse?

Around and around, it goes.

The problem with judgemental journalism is that it defines good and bad, right and wrong. Too much modern journalism is framed that way, and it is encouraged by the endemic practice of combining reportage and opinion. Journalists are encouraged to voice their preferences or judgements. They choose sides. Continue reading “Media blame game in Gaza”