Show Hide image

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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump's dangerous nation

From North Korea to Virginia, the US increasingly resembles a rogue state.

When Donald Trump was elected as US president, some optimistically suggested that the White House would have a civilising effect on the erratic tycoon. Under the influence of his more experienced colleagues, they argued, he would gradually absorb the norms of international diplomacy.

After seven months, these hopes have been exposed as delusional. On 8 August, he responded to North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities by threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen”. Three days later, he casually floated possible military action against Venezuela. Finally, on 12 August, he responded to a white supremacist rally in Virginia by condemning violence on “many sides” (only criticising the far right specifically after two days of outrage).

Even by Mr Trump’s low standards, it was an embarrassing week. Rather than normalising the president, elected office has merely inflated his self-regard. The consequences for the US and the world could be momentous.

North Korea’s reported acquisition of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on an intercontinental missile (and potentially reach the US) demanded a serious response. Mr Trump’s apocalyptic rhetoric was not it. His off-the-cuff remarks implied that the US could launch a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, leading various officials to “clarify” the US position. Kim Jong-un’s regime is rational enough to avoid a pre-emptive strike that would invite a devastating retaliation. However, there remains a risk that it misreads Mr Trump’s intentions and rushes to action.

Although the US should uphold the principle of nuclear deterrence, it must also, in good faith, pursue a diplomatic solution. The week before Mr Trump’s remarks, the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, rightly ruled out “regime change” and held out the possibility of “a dialogue”.

The North Korean regime is typically depicted as crazed, but its pursuit of nuclear weapons rests on rational foundations. The project is designed to guarantee its survival and to strengthen its bargaining hand. As such, it must be given incentives to pursue a different path.

Mr Trump’s bellicose language overshadowed the successful agreement of new UN sanctions against North Korea (targeting a third of its $3bn exports). Should these prove insufficient, the US should resume the six-party talks of the mid-2000s and even consider direct negotiations.

A failure of diplomacy could be fatal. In his recent book Destined for War, the Harvard historian Graham Allison warns that the US and China could fall prey to “Thucydides’s trap”. According to this rule, dating from the clash between Athens and Sparta, war typically results when a dominant power is challenged by an ascendent rival. North Korea, Mr Bew writes, could provide the spark for a new “great power conflict” between the US and China.

Nuclear standoffs require immense patience, resourcefulness and tact – all qualities in which Mr Trump is lacking. Though the thought likely never passed his mind, his threats to North Korea and Venezuela provide those countries with a new justification for internal repression.

Under Mr Trump’s leadership, the US is becoming an ever more fraught, polarised nation. It was no accident that the violent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminating in the death of the 32-year-old Heather Heyer, took place under his presidency. Mr Trump’s victory empowered every racist, misogynist and bigot in the land. It was doubtless this intimate connection that prevented him from immediately condemning the white supremacists. To denounce them is, in effect, to denounce himself.

The US hardly has an unblemished history. It has been guilty of reckless, immoral interventions in Vietnam, Latin America and Iraq. But never has it been led by a man so heedless of international and domestic norms. Those Republicans who enabled Mr Trump’s rise and preserve him in office must do so no longer. There is a heightened responsibility, too, on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, the president. The Brexiteers have allowed dreams of a future US-UK trade deal to impair their morality.

Under Mr Trump, the US increasingly resembles a breed it once denounced: a rogue state. His former rival Hillary Clinton’s past warning that “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons” now appears alarmingly prescient.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear