Barely a day goes by when I don’t receive an email (or phone call) that starts like this: I have a story I want the press to investigate… I want XXX exposed… The words ‘corruption’ and ‘fraud’ regularly pop up with people telling you they can ‘prove it.’
Such requests come from intelligent people from all walks of life. Their hot tip might be based on gossip in the pub. Sometimes they have had a court judgement against them or something didn’t go to court which they felt should have done. It might be they have a tip about a celebrity who is pregnant or having an affair (which will often turn out to be unprintable due to the recent introduction of strict privacy laws and so on…)
Recently I was literally hounded by one group of professional people who simply could not understand why I refused to place a story about what they perceived was ‘corruption’ between councillors (ermm… that person could sue the paper, myself and you for libel and defamation…)
Whatever the story, they all believe they have suffered a huge injustice or stumbled on a wrong-doing. They all think they can ‘prove it’ and that this proof they have will be enough to make some sensational allegation without any come-back. And who else to turn to but the press to expose this misdemeanor?
So they are often baffled – and usually upset – when I reply that there’s nothing I can do about it. But the bottom line is this: An awful LOT of proof (which has been legally acquired) is needed before stories will be run these days. Newspapers do not have armies of reporters and endless wodges of cash to spend investigating their story. Even background research such as asking the Police about a story that has come to a journalist is becoming taboo. So frankly these days if stories present some sort of legal issue then editors are likely to turn it down.
Journalists cannot afford to take any legal risks
Why is that? Well, surprisingly journalists are people. They have families; they have bills to pay. As it appears the press is about to be regulated by the Government over what you read, the fact is no journalist wants to go to prison over a story. So if a story poses some sort of risk – and in fact so many investigative stories just end up being spiked for legal reasons – that’s too bad because thanks to over-zealous campaigning by a minority to push through tough legislation on what we all read, these days it is not going to see the light of day.
So, it’s not surprising that given the fact the press is being forced by more and more legislation and red tape to turn stories away, people are therefore turning to the internet to get their story out there. Indeed some people – while criticising the press – mistakenly believe they themselves can say anything they like on their own blog or Twitter.
Incredibly as someone qualified in the printed law I see legally worrying blogs all the time. They range from people who’ve written a whole book about their abuse as a child when there has never been a court conviction (thus the family member they are accusing could sue them for libel and defamation) to others making bold statements on Twitter (when they haven’t even bothered to check their facts.)
And unfortunately I do not believe clampdowns on the press by the government are going to stop just with the UK press. This regulation by the government is, in my opinion, the thin end of the wedge. Already plans are afoot in Scotland to regulate not only the press but bloggers too. If you live in the UK and if you have a blog or a Twitter account or say something on Facebook – and you say something someone doesn’t like – you yourself could find yourself hauled up before a court.
This very thing has happened to one blogger recently, who has ended up with a £25,000 bill, mostly because she did not understand how strict libel and defamation laws already are now (and that’s without any more press laws coming in.)
Jacqui Thompson launched her blog, titled Carmarthenshire Planning Problems and More, in 2009 and was upset that her family had made a number of unsuccessful planning applications between 2004 and 2008. It was on this blog she began a series of posts in which she falsely accused Carmarthen county council chief executive, Mark James, and other council officers of corruption.
Despite the fact it is accepted her blog was only read by a ‘small number of people’ it resulted in her being hauled before the High Court and ordered to pay £25,000 in libel damages to the council’s chief executive.
Fellow bloggers tweeted that it was a ‘daft arrest’ but naturally Ms Thompson – whose blog was nominated in 2010 for a Wales Blog Award – is reportedly devastated by the turn of events.
Afterwards she said: “I hope it doesn’t restrict other bloggers or cause worry but I think it might somewhere down the line.”
But unfortunately, as the UK becomes ever more ‘regulated’ I predict this sort of scenario will be seen much more often in the future. So if you are a blogger or tweeter – if you don’t want a knock on your door at 6am one morning – don’t step out of line.