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Laurie Penny on why British journalists are taught to be dishonest

Free speech is shackled by the UK's libel laws.

The first thing I learned in journalism school was not to say anything bad about the police. If I did, even if I'd seen abuses of power with my own eyes, I could face a suit for damages that would ruin me, my editors and whatever paper had been unfortunate enough to publish my work.

Nick Cohen's new treatise on censorship, You Can't Read This Book, airs one of the more painful secrets of the British press - the slide, especially over the last 15 years, towards a culture where archaic libel laws give the wealthy and privileged "the power to enforce a censorship that the naive supposed had vanished with the repressions of the old establishment."

I recently spent some time in the United States, where the cultural attitude to freedom of the press is rather different. A country that produced Fox News and allows presidential attack ads to run on television can hardly be held up as a gold standard for fair and unbiased reporting, but if American journalism lacks deference, British journalism is crippled by a surfeit of it.

Where writers in the United States are used to having their articles cross-referenced by fact-checkers for accuracy, journalists in Britain have our work picked over by lawyers. I found myself blushing when I explained to fellow writers covering police brutality at Occupy Wall Street that where I come from, it does not matter whether or not what you write is true so much as whether or not it is actionable.

Actionability, moreover, is relative. It's about money as well as legality. The decisions writers and editors make about what to publish inevitably depend on whether the potentially aggrieved party is wealthy enough to sue. This means, in practical terms, that journalists can and do say pretty much anything we like about, for example, single parents, immigrants, the unemployed, or benefit claimants. Last year, however, when a group of chronically ill and disabled benefit claimants set up a small website campaigning against Atos Origin, the private company running the controversial new welfare tests, the French company lost no time sending out intimidating legal letters.

The real problem here is not just censorship, but self-censorship. Cohen points out that British journalists, campaigners and others learn to modify our speech before it ever reaches the point of contention. I will never forget being quietly reminded by other activists, on a demonstration against corporate tax avoidance last year, to chant "tax avoider!" not "tax dodger!". The imprecision of "dodger" might have given grounds for a suit, and we'd already spent all our money on the placards.

These were young people quite prepared to be arrested in the course of a peaceful protest. The risks of a defamation action, however, were much too high. Under British civil law, the burden of proof in cases of libel or slander is on the defendant, not the claimant - if you're sued, you have to prove that what you said isn't libellous, and defendants must pay some court costs whatever the verdict. The price of losing a libel case often runs into millions, so editors, activists and journalists are forced to take steps to avoid them at any cost.

In the British media, the cost of courage is prohibitively high - so young journalists are taught to be duplicitous from day one. We are taught, or we learn on the job from decent editors shackled by the threat of libel costs, to withhold or obscure what we know in case it inconveniences the rich and spiteful.

What could be more dishonest? Without a change in the law, journalists will continue to learn deference and duplicity in the very profession many of us entered to expose such things.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Notes from a crime scene: what Seymour Hersh knows

Xan Rice meets the tireless Seymour Hersh to talk My Lai, pricey coffee and Bin Laden.

It’s late on a lazy Wednesday afternoon when Seymour Hersh comes bounding down the stairs. “Let’s find somewhere to sit,” the American investigative journalist says, striding over to the café area of the hotel in Bloomsbury where we meet.

Not quiet enough, Hersh decides, and he marches into an adjoining branch of Steak & Lobster, past a startled waiter who tries to explain that the restaurant isn’t open yet. “He’ll have a coffee,” Hersh tells the man laying the tables, gesturing in my direction. When the drink arrives, he remarks that, at £4.39, it’s the most expensive coffee he has bought in some time.

“I’m older and crankier than [Bernie] Sanders,” the 79-year-old says with a smile, leaning back in his seat, his tie loose and his top button undone. Hersh’s many notable stories include the My Lai Massacre and cover-up in Vietnam, which he exposed in 1969, and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal during the Iraq War. He’s in good health, relishing his speaking tour of London to promote his new book, The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, and hearing “how wonderful I am”.

“I come home from a trip like this,” he says, “and my wife can’t stand me. She says, ‘Get away, I don’t want to talk to you because you want everybody to bow and scrape.’”

Hersh never planned to be a journalist. After he was thrown out of law school for poor grades in 1959, he heard about an opening for a police reporter at a small news agency in Chicago. “I was reasonably coherent and could walk in a straight line, so they hired me,” he explains. Hersh learned on the job, covering his beat with a zeal that did not always impress his editors, one of whom liked to address him, without fondness, as “my good, dear, energetic Mr Hersh”.

“He saw me as a bleeding heart,” Hersh says, “who cared about people ‘of the Negro persuasion’ dying.”

Half a century later, he cannot say exactly what drove him to become an investigative reporter. “What defect did I have in my life that made me want to make everyone else look bad?” he wonders. “I almost viewed myself like a public defender: my job was to be there on the scene of a crime and to write about it in such a way that the police could not have the only call.”

Later, as his range widened, Hersh came to see his role as keeping in check “the nincompoops and criminals and fools running the world”.

He had been a journalist for ten years when he received a tip-off about an army officer being court-martialled for killing civilians in Vietnam. After investigating, he broke the story of the massacre at My Lai, in which a group of US soldiers murdered at least 347 people. The work earned him a Pulitzer Prize and soon afterwards he wrote his first piece for the prestigious New Yorker magazine. After sending in a draft, he was told that it would be read by the editor, William Shawn, and that he would receive a proof copy in the mail.

“Seven days later, the envelope comes and I’m terrified,” he recalls. “It was a writer’s magazine and any change they wanted, they asked you about. On the third page, I had some cliché or figure of speech. It was circled and in
the margin Mr Shawn had written: ‘Mr Hersh. Pls use words.’ I had a one-year course, a Master’s degree in journalism, in one sentence!”

Hersh has written regularly for the New Yorker over the years, though the relationship has recently come under strain. After researching the death of Osama Bin Laden, he became convinced that the Obama administration’s account of what happened before, during and after the raid in which Bin Laden was killed was a lie. He argued that the al-Qaeda leader had been captured by Pakistani intelligence in 2006 and held in Abbottabad until the US navy Seals operation five years later, which, Hersh claimed, was conducted with Pakistan’s assistance – rather than being a daring mission into hostile territory.

The New Yorker declined to run the story, so Hersh wrote it for the London Review of Books, which published it last year. The piece was read widely but attracted criticism from some American journalists who argued that it relied too heavily on a single, unnamed source and veered dangerously in the direction of conspiracy theories. Hersh is convinced that his version is correct and makes no apologies.

“I remember saying to my wife, ‘Don’t [these journalists] have mothers that tell them what to do better?’ . . . They insisted what they knew, what they wrote, had to be the story.”

Hersh’s mistrust of the official line is undiminished. His new book also questions whether it really was the Assad regime that carried out the chemical attacks in Ghouta, Syria, in 2013. Even the culprits of the recent Paris and Brussels massacres are not beyond doubt. “I don’t think Isis had a goddam thing to do with these kids,” he says. “The truth is, I don’t have any idea. I’m just telling you, heuristically, it’s an idea I would pursue if I was still a reporter.”

There is more to tell but Hersh has another interview. “Talk to me tomorrow,” he says, running back upstairs to collect his coat. “I’ll be around. I still have a lot of energy.” 

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism