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January 22, 2010

Media law debated at Cambridge Union

Category: News

Motion that 'the British press has too much freedom' lost


5RB’s James Price QC yesterday took part in a debate on press freedom at Cambridge Union. The motion was “This House believes the British press has too much freedom”.

Keith Schilling, proposing the motion, said that he was seeking to “dispel the spin” put forward by the press about what he said were the “supposed” travails of newspapers, and the “claimed ease” with which claimants obtain injunctions and damages. He was critical of the PCC as an effective protection for the subjects of press attention.

Tom Bower, reminded the House of the number of crooks who have been regular, and sometimes successful, litigants in the libel courts, some of whom he claims to have exposed in his biographies.

James Price QC’s theme was that responsible journalists have nothing to fear from the existing state of the law, and that there are some areas in which the press is still permitted to be judge in its own cause, notably where an injunction is the only effective remedy for the victim. He said that everyone, apart from the press, has to answer for damage inflicted on another person by failing to take reasonable care, and that the press is uniquely privileged in this respect.

David Leigh, investigations editor of the Guardian, described English libel laws as the laughing stock of the rest of the world, and claimed that libel tourists are flocking to this jurisdiction. He spoke of some of the important work done in the past by investigative journalism. In the case of Jonathan Aitken, he said the situation was only saved at the last minute by the discovery by journalists of evidence which justified their work. He was critical of the courts’ willingness to grant superinjunctions, giving his account of the Trafigura case.

The debate was then thrown open to the floor of the House, and attracted some perceptive contributions. More than one speaker expressed the view that the News of the World had stepped a long way over the mark of what is acceptable in its exposure of Max Mosley, but that the press and media are not a homogenous whole, and the more serious and responsible publications should not have to suffer from attempts to curb the misdeeds of others.

Max Mosley was then called by the President to support the motion, and was warmly received by the House. He reflected on Paul Dacre’s description of his conduct as “unimaginably depraved”, wondering what Dacre could possibly think was mere ordinary depravity. Mosley went on to refer to his application to Strasbourg, and the lack of any requirement for the press to give advance notice of what they know will be, or is likely to be, an unlawful invasion of an individual’s fundamental rights.

Alex Thomson, presenter of Channel Four News, endorsed the point made by other speakers that not all of the media are print publications, and not all should be tarred with the same brush. At Channel Four News, the need to give a right of reply, which Max Mosley had called for, was drummed into journalists and editors. He said that ‘more law’ was the last thing that the responsible media needed.

The House divided, with the motion lost by a margin of about two thirds to one third.

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