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After describing how he was helped to break into the South Wales Echo office car, recalling his early years in journalism at the start of a 34-year career, the importance of experience in the job, making clear that ‘calls’ to emergency services and court cases are central to any media operation, as well as the vital role of the accurate quotation, here our award-winning Editor Phil Parry explains the importance of libel to any journalist.
Every journalist worth his or her salt must know the laws of libel.
Broadly speaking, being obnoxious does not defame someone, but undermining the reputation of that person, or the ability to earn a living, may do.
This is the bedrock of journalism, and luckily knowing this has earned me many awards.
You can say the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, 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!).
Over the years I have been involved in countless legal cases – covering them, defending them and prosecuting them.
The regular Tuesday evening BBC Wales Television current affairs series I presented for 10 years from 1989, Week In, Week Out, has been axed after 53 years, and replaced by the strap ‘BBC Wales Investigates’ on ‘big’ stories, 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 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 say the most appalling things on social media, and some of it is libellous.
A widespread dissemination comes into it too.
I have been called wrongly a “lying bastard” and “biased” as well as “misogynistic” on the internet.
The full text of the ‘biased’ tweet last year came after a story about a woman Welsh Assembly Member (AM) 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 ‘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.
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.
But knowing about these rules seems to be a scarce commodity, and over the years 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.
A major player in the Welsh media world is Media Wales which has the newspaper Western Mail in its stable and the website WalesOnline.
After an accurate satirical piece that we wrote on The Eye about the number of items in WalesOnline on 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!
Mr Rowland also has an intriguing view of what constitutes journalism.
He advised a reader anxious to break into journalism to write lists about the best places to eat in Wales, but strongly denied this was ‘clickbait’.
He wrote on WalesOnline: “You might not be interested in ’19 mouth watering street food dishes and where to find them in Wales, and you might believe it’s not something we should be writing (I wouldn’t agree, but that’s fine).
“That doesn’t mean it’s clickbait.”
But real journalism is much harder than just writing about ’19 mouth-watering street food dishes’ (see tomorrow’s story).
In pursuing it you also need to be aware that identity is another key fundamental in libel law.
We exposed a convicted fraudster called Steve Chan, who worked at the Swansea University School of Management, but it took many months of checking to do so.
One Chan had been jailed for more than four years by a court in Boston after a massive fraud, while another was an academic at Swansea.
We needed to establish that the two people were in fact the same, and unfortunately pictures of Chan did not help as he had lost a lot of weight.
In the end we were helped by The Boston Globe’s investigation team Spotlight, and sources inside Swansea University.
We showed how the convicted fraudster and ‘academic’ WERE Chan, and that he moved on to advise another company with an interesting history.
These sorts of stories are trickier than just writing lists about food, but although the law alters, the basics are always the same.
In 1921 an interesting court case took place after a strange incident in Littlehampton.
A woman called Edith Swan had been sending poison pen letters to neighbours she hated.
Here is an extract of one of them: “You bloody fucking piss country whores go and fuck your cunt. It’s your drain that stinks not your fish box. Yo fucking dirty sods. You are as bad as your whore neybor.”
But the jury in the libel trial of Swan refused to convict her because she had an education (unbelievably) after a judge’s direction, and another jury later wrongly convicted an ill-educated woman called Rose Gooding, who was sentenced to 12 months in prison with hard labour.
She was fully exonerated afterwards.
My point is that the legal aspect may change (and sometimes the law is an ass!) but the fundamentals do not.
You cannot go around saying anything, and publishing anything about people – if only social media users knew that!
Tomorrow – we reveal the new identity of a crooked property ‘expert’ from Wales who was exposed by us.
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