Here our Editor Phil Parry looks at why today legal issues have never been so crucial, for politicians and journalists alike.
Earlier he has described how he was helped to break into the South Wales Echo office car when he was a cub reporter, recalled his early career as a journalist, the importance of experience in the job, and making clear that the ‘calls’ to emergency services as well as court cases are central to any media operation.
He has also explored how poorly paid most journalism is when trainee reporters had to live in squalid flats, the vital role of expenses, and about one of his most important stories on the now-scrapped 53 year-old BBC Cymru Wales TV Current Affairs series he presented for 10 years, Week In Week Out (WIWO), which won an award even after it was axed, long after his career really took off.
Phil has explained too how crucial it is actually to speak to people, the virtue of speed as well as accuracy, why knowledge of ‘history’ is vital, how certain material was removed from TV Current Affairs programmes when secret cameras had to be used, and some of those he has interviewed.
The law is at the forefront of crucial events now for leading politicians and journalists.
The result of the most important election in the world next month (the US Presidency) could be contested by the present incumbent Donald Trump (as far as you can ever believe what he says) and end up before the Supreme Court.
Last month he told reporters at the White House: “I think this scam that the Democrats are pulling — it’s a scam — the scam will be before the United States Supreme Court“, referring to states’ programmes to ramp up mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Trump has effectively run on a ‘law and order’ ticket, yet as of April 2018 he and his businesses had been involved in more than 4,000 state and federal legal actions. But these manoeuvres by him look increasingly desperate as his opponent Democrat Joe Biden opens up a double digit lead in the opinion polls.
It comes as a legal settlement out of court involving one of the most prominent journalists in the UK and another which is about to be heard, have underlined once more how all leading journalists are taught the basics of libel and electoral laws yet others apparently do not understand this.
Just after ten o’clock one evening, lawyers conveyed an apology from Labour to the veteran journalist, John Ware, and seven former staff members, who will also receive “substantial” damages (it’s actually more than £500,000), after he had presented a BBC TV programme entitled “Is Labour Anti-Semitic?” in which the staffers claimed that the then Labour leader’s team had meddled in the complaints process.
Mr Ware has written: “I had misrepresented facts and fabricated facts, the party claimed – it was all part of my ‘deliberate and malicious’ attempt ‘designed to mislead the public’”. Jeremy Corbyn, for his part, has said the settlement was “disappointing”, and as a result, Mr Ware is now suing him too.
These events, thousands of miles apart, may seem entirely unconnected but they are not. The common theme is the law. A free media where journalists know what can and cannot be said legally, is vital in examining the record of politicians like Mr Trump and in policing fair, democratic, elections as we are about to witness (theoretically) in America. Yet it appears others cannot see this and some actually call themselves journalists.
Over many years I have endured countless threats of legal action but they have hardly ever come to anything.
A major player in the Welsh media world is Media Wales. It has the newspaper Western Mail in its stable and the website WalesOnline, which appears to be obsessed with lists, celebrities, rugby, as well as the weather. After an accurate satirical piece that we wrote on The Eye about the number of ‘stories’ in WalesOnline concerning the Cardiff bar ‘Coyote Ugly’, the Editor of WalesOnline Paul Rowland, threatened to sue me, saying “I am placing it (the satirical piece) in the hands of our lawyers” adding the extraordinary words “satire is no defence against libel”.
In fact, satire CAN be a defence against libel if it is wrong – you can say, ‘yes it was inaccurate but it was meant to be funny’. In this case, though, it was accurate as well, so there were TWO defences! It infuriated me that ostensibly one of the most important journalists in Wales, plainly, on this evidence, knew NOTHING about the law of libel!
In another bizarre case two days ago one so-called ‘journalist’ in Wales wrote to The Eye: ” I need an email address for your publication it is relating to a legal matter” yet weirdly the ‘journalist’ had used the email/gmail address herself that is given on The Eye in sending the message!
During my long journalistic career I have been involved in countless libel cases – reporting them; pursuing them successfully; and losing them.
Knowing the legal rules is absolutely fundamental for all journalists. Broadly speaking, being obnoxious does not defame someone, but undermining the reputation of that person, or the ability to earn a living, and it is published to a third party, may do.
This is the bedrock of journalism, and luckily knowing this has earned me many awards.
You can say, for example, that the First Minister of Wales (FMW), Mark Drakeford, is a bastard (although he is not) because that could be defended as Fair Comment (or Honest Comment as it is now known), but you cannot say he is a cheating bastard unless you have very strong evidence (but there is none, because he is NOT a cheat – let me make that perfectly clear!).
I have been called, wrongly, a “lying bastard” and “biased” as well as “misogynistic” on the internet. The full text of the ‘biased’ tweet came after a story about a woman Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament MS member, and was: “Severed links with @WalesEye (our Twitter name) years ago. Unfunny, biased, personal, superficial, mysoginistic (sic), out of touch &bitter. That’s WalesEye, not me”.
Now, you can probably get away with most of this stuff although it is obnoxious (‘unfunny’ for example can be defended as Honest Comment) but ‘biased’ and ‘misogynistic’ (even if misspelt) are quite different. Possessing the knowledge of what separates these things is crucial.
To call a journalist (especially an investigative one) ‘biased’ (let alone a ‘misogynist’) is probably the worst thing you can say, because it undermines that person’s ability to earn a living.
If you are seen as not being neutral, then people will refuse to come to you with the other side of the story. Also, this was by someone who has a fairly large following on Twitter.
As to the first ‘bastard’ comment – that is probably acceptable (I hold my hands up to being a bastard on the doorstep sometimes!) but a ‘liar’ is something you should never say about a journalist unless, again, you have very strong evidence.
On the other hand, this blog was seen by virtually no one, and the dissemination would not have been widespread – so I did nothing about it.
The second insult on Twitter was another matter entirely however. I went straight to my libel lawyer who consulted a specialist barrister. We threatened to sue and a full apology as well as retraction were duly published.
The regular Tuesday evening BBC Wales Television Current Affairs series I presented for 10 years from 1989, Week In, Week Out (WIWO), has been axed after 53 years, and replaced by ‘BBC Wales Investigates’ for occasional ‘big’ stories such as one on the Clydach murders next week, but on Mondays we would invariably be joined by a corporation lawyer to check every word of the programme script, as well as every frame of the film. People who had no idea of the law would complain about things that were NEVER in the programme!
After libel cases I have won large amounts of money, and lost large amounts of money for my then-employer when the court has not accepted my lawyer’s defence.
The media landscape (and indeed the law itself) changes all the time, but the fundamentals do not. Newspaper circulations may be plunging but legal basics are unchanged. A piece published on Facebook or Twitter is governed by the same laws of libel as if it were an item on BBC Wales Today or a page lead in the Western Mail.
People do not seem to be aware of this though, and they say the most appalling things on social media, and some of it is libellous.
But knowing about the rules of libel seems to be a scarce commodity, and over the years on The Eye we have endured numerous threats of legal action from people who do not understand what they are saying. None of these threats have come to anything.
On one occasion I was accused of committing ‘criminal libel’ by a senior council official in Wales. ‘Criminal libel’ is quite different from ordinary ‘defamatory’ libel, and can involve a perceived attack on the monarch or state.
It is also used as a collective term for all offences which consist of the publication of some prohibited matter in a libel, namely defamatory libel, seditious libel, blasphemous libel and obscene libel.
The offences of seditious libel, and obscene libel were abolished in England and Wales and Northern Ireland on 12 January 2010 when section 73 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 came into force.
Plainly this person had no idea.
Knowing this kind of background informs the work of every good journalist and should be understood by all of them as well as leading politicians.
Unfortunately in the case of Mr Trump and others it apparently does not..!
The memories of Phil’s astonishing 37-year award-winning career in journalism (when knowledge of the libel laws was paramount), as he was gripped by the rare crippling neurological condition, Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia (HSP), have been released in a major book ‘A GOOD STORY’. Order the book now!