Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Newswipegate Day 2

Well if I've learned one thing from this it's the overwhelming speed at which something can fly on twitter. To clarify:

-Last week we were told categorically that the Starsuckers piece would be in Tuesdays Newswipe
-On the day of transmission we were told by the production team that the segment had been cut for pressures of time, just hours before broadcast.
-Further calls elsewhere in the BBC told us that the segment was cut as it was fraught with legal problems and that the beeb did not want a lengthy battle with News International, a view further supported by messages we have received once it kicked off on Twitter.
-Since then we've had categorical denials of this from several members of the Newswipe team and from Brooker himself (someone who I greatly admire). Brookers tweet suggests that they may use the piece in the future, which will now have to be in the next series. This seems unlikely given that it's a topical news program and that the next series will be going out nearly a year after the original story.
-I have learned that doll in Adam Curtis' short was deliberately blacked out as a form of protest against the BBC for blanking out practically every other face in the doc.

This was never supposed to be an attack on the BBC, and we're prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt and blame a cock-up over conspiracy. Nevertheless, it's handing a victory to News International, as we have kept the NOTW vs Starsuckers saga under wraps for 3 months as Newswipe wanted an exclusive. It also passes a cloud over the original issue, which was the NOTW tried to censor a film using the very laws that the NOTW has gone on record saying are an affront to free speech.

Having been through all the correspondence I've made a timeline below of the NOTW's attempts to shut the film down, including extracts from the lawyers letters and emails.

20th March 2009. Chris Atkins calls up 4 Sunday tabloids posing as someone who knows an administrative nurse at a plastic surgery clinic, offering to sell medical records of celebrities who have had cosmetic surgery. The Sunday Express make it clear over the phone that they have no interest in a story because it would break the PCC code and breach medical ethics. Journalists working for The News Of The World, The Sunday Mirror & The People all arrange to meet Atkins to discuss a deal.

26th March 2009. Atkins meets all three journalists wearing an undercover camera. The sting is identical to those specialised by the NOTW, and special inspiration is taken from the famed NOTW undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood aka The Fake Sheik. During filmed conversations, both the journalists from the Sunday Mirror and The People offer Atkins money for medical records. The NOTW journalist expresses a cautious interest and makes it clear that any story would have to be in the public interest.

Summer 2009. Atkins edits sequence under legal advice. Decision is made not to include the public interest line by the NOTW journalist as there was no obvious public interest possible for the stories, but the line is included in the article on the film that is being prepared by the Guardian who are preparing an article on the film.

Thursday 17th October. Guardian breaks medical records story on it’s website. The article includes a statement from the NOTW defending it’s journalist.

Monday 19th October. NOTW lawyers contact Starsuckers Lawyers and claim that their journalist has been libeled in the film, and demand to come and see the whole of Starsuckers prior to any public screenings. The NOTW have never given copy approval to the subjects of any of their stings and exposes. Six months earlier the NOTW Editor, Colin Myler, went in front of parliament and argued against prior notification when defending running the Max Mosely story without notifying Mosely first:

Q812 Janet Anderson: Why did you not give that opportunity to Mr Mosley?
Mr Myler: Because we knew that probably Mr Mosley would get an injunction, and I felt very strongly that this was a story that actually should not be stopped because of an injunction
. (DCMS committee on press standards 5th May 2009)

Starsuckers lawyers tell the NOTW that we won’t permit a viewing, but that we will include the NOTW statement at the end of the film.

Tuesday 20th October.
NOTW’s solicitors, Farrer & Co, contact Starsuckers lawyers stating that they act on behalf of Sarah Nuwar, the NOTW journalist. Farrers also demand to view the film in full, with a copy being made available to the NOTW Lawyers. They also demand “a full and unedited copy of the entirety of Mr Atkins’ recorded conversations both over the telephone and in person.” This is of course privileged journalistic material, and the NOTW would never hand over their journalists notes simply because someone has asked them.

They assert that from what they have seen of the film on the Guardian site, it has been edited in such a way that is highly defamatory and damaging to her personal and professional reputation. If Nuwar or the NOTW were to sue Starsuckers, they would be using the very same laws that they have gone on record saying are a draconian restriction on free speech. The head of legals for the NOTW, Tom Crone, has also been before parliament to complain about British libel law.

Mr Crone: The burden of proof in libel… is a very, very onerous burden indeed for newspapers to shift, especially if you happen to be the Sun or the News of the World. (DCMS committee on press standards 5th May 2009)

Farrers add in an email that they “would therefore urge your clients to remove Ms Nuwar from the film altogether to avoid libelling her… before the film is screened” The NOTW takes a different view of prior restraint when exposing the sex lives of footballers, and after the John Terry scandal Tom Crone stated:

“Over recent years, there has been more prior restraint on freedom of speech
in Britain than in any other democratic country in the world. The British
public's right to know has been the victim of this legal process. Hopefully
that will now change.”

Starsuckers lawyers issue firm rebuttal to the Farrers letter.

Thursday 22nd October
Starsuckers receives a letter from David Price Associates - this is now the 3rd set of lawyers in 4 days who have tried to remove the NOTW and their journalist from the film. They state that “your clients would be misguided to regard our client as ‘fair game’ simply because she is a News of the World Journalist”.

However in parliament her boss Colin Myler makes it clear that their journalists are always representatives of the paper.

One of the things that I introduced into individual contracts was the understanding that, first of all, an individual on the staff of the paper had to absolutely take accountability for his or her behaviour as an ambassador representing the newspaper.” (DCMS committee on press standards 5th May 2009)

Despite these threats, the film is released un edited, and nothing further has been heard from the NOTW or their journalist. The hypocrisy of their whole legal campaign is underlined by Myler's assertion to parliament that he would not use libel laws against others:

Janet Anderson: When it comes to use of the libel law, we took evidence from Professor Greenslade, and he told us there are plenty of examples in which journalists are prime users of the libel law they affect to dislike. Have you or your paper ever issued a libel action to prevent another party publishing information about you?
Mr Myler: I am not aware of one. I will check but I do not believe we have.
Janet Anderson: Have you ever threatened anyone with libel action?
Mr Crone: No. I have been in this job for 29 years four months and about 28 days and no, never - not that I can recall.
(DCMS committee on press standards 5th May 2009)

The 5th May select committee ends with Crone pushing the “Reynolds Defence” to be enshrined in Law – ie giving journalists (and of course Starsuckers) the right to “Publish and be dammed.”

Adam Price: In terms of the Reynolds and Jameel defence of responsible journalism, do you think it would help free expression and free press if that judgment was placed on a statutory basis? If it was enshrined in law on legislation?
Mr Crone: Yes, I think it probably would actually… I think to have it recognised and put into statute would be a good thing. (DCMS committee on press standards 5th May 2009)


  1. I have written about this article on my blog - can't you release the Newswipe clip anyway on youtube or with the film itself?

    Will update everyone on this post...

  2. By everyone - I mean the minuscule few fools who choose to read my stuff.

    Hardly the same as the Guardian publishing online but hey - I can't wait to see the film.