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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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Why we, and Theresa May, will be watching George Osborne carefully

Osborne will use the Standard as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

In his biography of the man who, in May, will become the new editor of the London Evening Standard while remaining as the MP for Tatton, the Financial Times commentator Janan Ganesh described how from an early age George Osborne “possessed a searing ambition to be a person of consequence”. Ganesh called Osborne “a psychological seer” and a “perspicacious analyst of people, including himself”. Moving through the gears, he added: “He has been a Pauline, a Bullingdon boy and a Bilderberg panjandrum, but he now belongs to the most truly privileged elite: those who are happy in their work.”

The Austerity Chancellor was published in 2012 when Osborne, who is 45, was considered to be David Cameron’s inevitable successor as leader of the Conservative Party and thus a future prime minister. As we all know, it did not quite turn out that way, the small matter of the EU referendum disrupting even the best-laid plans. Since being unceremoniously sacked last year by Theresa May, Osborne, who is an unapologetic liberal globaliser (he once told me that the book that had influenced him the most was Mill’s On Liberty), has been assiduously plotting his return to public life while assembling a portfolio of well-remunerated stipends, including a four-days-a-month contract with the asset management firm BlackRock, for which he is paid £650,000.

Before Christmas, Osborne was telling friends that he felt “unrepresented” by May’s Conservative Party. Because of the collapse of the Labour Party, he had concluded that the Brexit debate amounted, in essence, to an argument within the conservative family, among the Tory party, the press and the business community. The Scottish National Party naturally had a different view.

The first significant conversation I had with Osborne was at a Notting Hill drinks party – where else? I found him congenial and candid, and soon afterwards he invited me to accompany him on tours of the Nissan plant and the Hitachi factory, both in the north-east of England. The private Osborne is quite different from the public Osborne, who was booed at the 2012 Paralympics and has been caricatured as a “sneering Bullingdon boy”. Those who have worked closely with Osborne, including the former Liberal Democrat MP Danny Alexander, speak well of him – of his intellect and knowledge of and interest in history, but also of his decency and, most surprisingly, his shyness.

As chancellor, Osborne’s record was mixed. At least two of his Budgets unravelled calamitously, undermining his reputation for strategic intelligence. His dogmatic pursuit of expansionary fiscal contraction delayed Britain’s recovery from the Great Recession and his “fiscal surplus rule”, by which he attempted to bind future governments to a Budget surplus, was humiliatingly abandoned.

Osborne’s appointment as editor of the Standard is fascinating on many levels. For a start, it throws up any number of potential conflicts of interest between his role as an MP and his duty as an editor to challenge power, break stories and create mischief; between  his being a champion of the “Northern Powerhouse” and a celebrant of all things London; between his advisory role at BlackRock and the integrity of the Standard’s City pages. There is, too, the conflict of interest between Osborne, the spurned Remainer, and the Prime Minister, who is thought to resent the insouciance of the Cameroon chumocracy.

It’s certain that Osborne will use the Standard, a free newspaper with a daily distribution of nearly 900,000 copies, as a rival power base to the May government. But can he do the job and retain his credibility as a parliamentarian?

As an editor, I was relaxed about his appointment, even excited by it. It used to be common for politicians to write more than party propaganda for newspapers and magazines and for there to be free movement between Westminster and Fleet Street. Nigel Lawson is a former editor of the Spectator, as is Boris Johnson, who attempted and failed to be both an editor and an MP. Richard Crossman, a long-time contributing writer for the New Statesman, was our (unsuccessful) editor from 1970 to 1972 while staying on as an MP. John Freeman was a Labour MP before becoming a journalist; he edited the NS from 1961 to 1965. Michael Foot edited the Standard in his twenties, as well as Tribune after he entered the Commons.

I’ve no doubt that Osborne can succeed as an editor. Credentialism is overrated. He understands power, he has great contacts, he can write and, as a former applicant to the Times and Economist graduate trainee schemes, he has a long-standing interest in journalism. Whether he can combine editing with his obligations as an MP is for his constituents and his own conscience to decide.

Editing the Standard is no sinecure. Evgeny Lebedev is a hands-on proprietor and his staff have endured deep budget cuts. Osborne will bring to the role a touch of what Saul Bellow called “event-glamour”, as well as serious political purpose. The former austerity chancellor does not lack self-belief and his searing ambition to be a person of consequence is undiminished. Downing Street will be watching him very carefully, and so will his fellow journalists.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution