This year’s Media Law Resource Centre* (MLRC) conference in central London proved just as temperate as the autumn weather.
Hosted in the fusty yet grand confines of the Law Society just near Fleet Street, the event was attended by over 200 delegates from the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, the Middle East, Canada, Australia, Asia and Russia.
Matters got off to a jolly start with Australia’s own Geoffrey Robertson QC (pic) delivering his views on the history and significance of Magna Carta – in short there was no real freedom of speech until 400 years after.
Professor Burt Neuborne followed with an entertaining view of the First Amendment – it should be read as a poem.
Neuborne, who teaches at the New York University law school, suggested there was good reason for the order of the document’s six central components; they describe the “life-cycle of a democratic idea”.
His novel approach had several lawyers (not all of them American) considering a re-reading.
The panel on free speech in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings was enlivened by the presence of Dr Giles Fraser, a journalist and the priest-in-charge, St Mary’s London, who drew a distinction between offending and bullying, most often of minorities.
He posed the question: “How much expression must a free society tolerate?”
No one seemed to know, although it was pointed out that in France, the criticism of ideas is protected by law, but not the vilification of people.
While Charlie Hebdo had been taken to trial 50 times in the past 20 years, it had only one conviction for “hate” speech.
Fraser, dressed in conspicuously non-religious garb of faded blue jeans, black T-shirt and leather jacket said freedom had become a “cuckoo” value, pushing out all other values. It leads to “bullying of the vulnerable”.
Someone from The (London) Daily Telegraph opined that freedom of speech means the freedom not to publish, while CNN’s in-house counsel highlighted concerns about staff safety on the ground in countries with severe criminal defamation laws.
Australia featured again in a session titled Views from the Bench.
Justice Simon Whelan of the Victorian Court of Appeal joined Mr Justice Nicol of the High Court of England and Wales to discuss defamation, privacy, open justice and how much better trials are without juries.
Whelan himself is a former radio personality, having once co-hosted the enormously popular Australian Rules comedy show “Coodabeen Champions”.
It was noted that in America, the home of “televised justice”, there are no cameras or live audio in superior and appellate courts.
When it came to live-tweeting trials, Whelan erred “on the side of publication” and Nicol expressed concern that “the business of journalism is no longer confined to professionals”.
Justice Whelan said there was a big issue with jurors doing their own research online, adding that he once looked on the internet himself “to see what a juror would see if they disobeyed me”.
A session on press freedom in world hotspots proved depressingly familiar, with delegates from India, Egypt, Turkey, Hungary and Russia describing various forms of journalistic oppression, old and new.
Sir Alan Moses QC opened the second day of the conference with a blistering defence of the controversial body created in the wake of Leveson, and which he chairs – the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO).
You can read the full text of his address [pdf] here.
Moses characterised IPSO’s goal as the “modification of behaviour for the protection of the public”.
Jonathan Heawood, the founder of rival press regulatory body, IMPRESS, begged to differ, saying IPSO’s systems and processes were inherently flawed because they were self-regulated.
Moses curtly responded that no newspapers had signed up to IMPRESS yet, rendering its powers purely academic.
Chris Elliott, readers’ editor at The Guardian (which has not signed up to IPSO) provided a very different perspective on self-regulation.
The readers’ editor position was established in 1997 to address reader complaints.
Elliott said he receives 29,000 emails a year and publishes 2,500 corrections a year. An independent panel of three reviews his decisions and hears appeals.
Delegates heard that drones taking photos of people inside their homes (even if the photos are never published) is prohibited in the UK, Ireland and Germany.
Journalists’ shield laws varied, with no real protection for sources in Canada, Australia and Scotland, but strong laws in Europe and California.
The Guardian’s director of editorial legal services, Gill Phillips, pointed out that in the wake of the Google Spain judgment, Google is deciding what to take down from the internet, without any transparency about the basis on which material is being removed.
Peter Bartlett who acts for Fairfax Media, said for the most part, Australian news organisations simply refuse to take down historical material.
The vices and virtues of the tabloid press proved lively ground for the conference’s final session.
Panellists included Martin Conboy, author of the 2006 book Tabloid Britain, Janine Gibson of BuzzFeed, Camilla Wright of Popbitch and the former editor of The Independent, Chris Blackhurst.
Moderator Clive Coleman of the BBC began by asking where the tabloids would be in ten years time.
Popbitch founder Wright said that since her site depended on the tabloid press for stories, she couldn’t see them disappearing, adding, “culture will change the tabloids, not vice versa”.
Conboy, professor of journalism at Sheffield University, insisted the tabloids weren’t going anywhere because “there’s a need for them – they’re magnificently parochial”.
He claimed the UK redtops had some 18 million readers.
What they wanted to read was “sometimes profound, sometimes stupid”.
Gibson said BuzzFeed consciously avoids a “holier than thou, judgmental view of the world”.
In that case, freelance journalist Blackhurst responded, “I’ve spent my life doing completely unpopular journalism.”
Blackhurst believes there is still a “huge appetite for tabloid journalism”, gloomily predicting that The Sun website will be bigger than The Daily Mail’s in three or four years time.
He described Leveson’s recommendations as “out of all proportion” to what the inquiry uncovered.
“It [phone-hacking] was confined to a small group of newspapers and a small group of journalists.”
Nevertheless, he said, “Journalists were doing crazier and crazier things…the bubble had to burst.”
And another MLRC conference had to end.
But not before drinks and canapes at the House of Lords, courtesy of The Lord Black of Brentwood.
Now that was fun.
*The Media Law Resource Centre is a US-based non-profit organisation interested in the development of media law and policy. The MLRC conference is held every year alternately in London and Washington.