Alan Rusbridger, libel reform, and Wikileaks
This evening I attended Alan Rusbridger‘s Anthony Sampson memorial lecture at City University, at which he addressed the hot topic of libel reform (today’s media law news has included Max Mosley losing his case for prior notification at the European Court of Human Rights, Evening Standard and Independent chairman Evgeny Lebedev’s remarks about press freedom, MP Zac Goldsmith’s call for a privacy law, the Telegraph being censured by the PCC for its secret recordings of Lib Dem MPs, and continued back-and-forth about superinjunctions).
I’m not going to weigh in on the topic of libel reform itself, as far more learned and experienced people than myself continue to publish reams on the subject all over the press and online. What interested me about the lecture were the inevitable references to the ongoing impact the Internet is having on media law. Instances that cropped up included the Guardian‘s simultaneous publishing of material obtained via Wikileaks with the New York Times, as a means of covering itself against possible legal action, and the breaching of superinjunctions over the weekend by an anonymous Twitter user.
These two examples made me question whether the campaign for libel reform will be something we look back on in two centuries’ time, as with the example of the North Briton used by Rusbridger. My first instinct was to say no – in two centuries’ time, the idea that publication could be constrained by any one country’s laws will seem laughable. Whoever the anonymous tweep who exposed the superinjunctions was, he could have covered his tracks by such simple expedients as spoofing his MAC address and using a public wireless network to post the updates. Short of a 24-style trawl of thousands of hours of CCTV footage, he would be almost impossible to find.
Equally, Wikileaks’ distributed structure, broad appeal among people with access to the resources to mirror the site, and multiple fallback hosting options in press freedom-friendly jurisdictions meant that it could defy the world’s most powerful government with impunity. Wikileaks seemed to represent a form of asymmetrical information warfare; where large multinationals could say what they liked and be confident of soaking up any fines or small loss of reader-/viewership, the Internet affords individuals and small groups of activists a similar freedom to publish and be damned. What price Britain’s libel laws and threats of contempt of court if the offending information sits on a server in the US (which recently introduced legislation specifically to prevent UK courts chasing libel infringers there) or Sweden?
I was fortunate enough to collar Rusbridger at the post-lecture drinks, where I asked his opinion about this. He pointed out that even if people are able to publish what they like, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be read or believed by people in the country at which it is aimed. Even Julian Assange agreed to the conditions, including pre-publication redactions, imposed by Bill Keller, Alan Rusbridger and the journalists at Der Spiegel (and later Le Monde, El Pais et al). This was because he needed the credibility (and the concentration of journalistic and editorial skills) that only large, traditional media organisations could provide if his material was to have the impact he desired for it.
It’s interesting to note that as Assange has been edged out into the cold (or quite possibly strode out there himself) he’s gone in exactly the wrong direction to get himself taken seriously, making strident, unfounded accusations of CIA meddling in the British press and Swedish criminal justice system. Assange may be able to publish what he likes, but without the discipline, fact checking and associated credibility of a Guardian or an NYT he is reduced to an irrelevancy.
And that’s an argument strong enough to convince me of the need for libel reform to protect the ponderous, traditional media institutions a lot of people online seem keen to see the back of. Without reform, and without the continued relevance of longstanding, trustworthy institutions, we won’t enjoy the full benefit of the centuries spent fighting for press freedom in this country.