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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.

Photo: Getty
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How our actual real-life adult politicians are mourning Big Ben falling silent

MPs are holding a vigil for a big bell.

Democracy in action in the Mother of Parliaments has always been a breathtaking spectacle, and today is no exception. For a group of our elected representatives, the lawmakers, the mouthpieces for the needy, vulnerable and voiceless among us, will be holding a silent vigil, heads bowed, for the stopping of Big Ben’s bongs for four years.

That’s right. Our politicians are mourning an old bell that won’t chime for a limited period.

Here’s everything ludicrous they’ve been saying about it:

“Of course we want to ensure people’s safety at work but it can’t be right for Big Ben to be silent for four years.

“And I hope that the speaker, as the chairman of the House of Commons commission, will look into this urgently so that we can ensure that we can continue to hear Big Ben through those four years.”

- The Right Honourable Theresa May MP, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, head of Her Majesty’s Government.

“There’s going to be a small group of us standing there with bowed heads in the courtyard… a group of like-minded traditionalists.

“We’re going to be gathering outside the members’ entrance, gazing up at this noble, glorious edifice, listening to the sounds rolling across Westminster, summoning true democrats to the Palace of Westminster.

“We’ll be stood down there with heads bowed but hope in our hearts.”

- Stephen Pound, Labour MP for Ealing North, Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Where There Are Actual Issues.

“Why can’t they switch the bells back on when they stop working at 5pm or 6pm or whenever it is? Also why is it taking four years?… My own view is that Big Ben, whether it be the Elizabeth Tower or indeed the bell inside, it’s not just one of the most iconic British things, it’s one of the most iconic world things, it’s on a Unesco site.”

- Nigel Evans, Conservative MP for the Ribble Valley and Adult Human Person.

“Four years to repair Big Ben?! We could have left the EU twice in that time.”

- The Right Honourable Lord Adonis, formerly of the No 10 Policy Unit and ex-Secretary of State for Transport.

“I think Big Ben ought to be kept striking as much as possible during the repairs as long as it doesn’t deafen the work force.

“It would be symbolically uplifting for it to sound out our departure from the EU as a literally ringing endorsement of democracy.”

 - The Honourable Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset and Our Future Overlord.

“We are being liberated from the European Union superstate and Britain will again be a completely self-governing country. Where will the eyes of the world be? On Parliament and Big Ben. It would be very strange if at midnight on that day it does not chime out, very bizarre. It is the heart of our nation.”

 - Peter Bone, Conservative MP for the Unfortunate Doomed of Wellingborough. 

Others have responded:

“[Silencing the bell is] not a national disaster or catastrophe.”

- The Right Honourable Jeremy Corbyn MP, Leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition (to broken clocks).

“When you see the footage [on Monday] of our colleagues who gather at the foot of Big Ben you will not see too many colleagues who have careers ahead of them.”

- Conor Burns (by name and by nature), Conservative MP for Bournemouth West and Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary.

“I think we should respect people’s health and safety while we’re at work.

“To be honest, there are more important things to be worrying about. We’ve got Grenfell Tower, we’ve got thousands of people across our country let down who don’t get access to proper mental health care, and so on and so forth.

“Quite apart from what’s happened in Barcelona, let’s just get a life and realise there are more important things around.”

- The Right Honourable Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk, former Health Minister, and National Voice of Reason 2017.

I'm a mole, innit.