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A Note on John Ware, the Media and Libel

From John Ware, in the Daily Mail:

There’s an unwritten code that says we journalists should never sue – because however offensive or defamatory criticism of our journalism may be, we hold free speech sacrosanct.

But on much of the internet, basic standards of accuracy and fairness have disappeared. Political and media ‘activists’ often fabricate facts, disregard truths and tell lies. At the moment, they get away with it.

Unlike journalists in the mainstream media, they are not held to account by professional bodies or even by the law of libel. And it is having a corrupting effect on the way we communicate with each other.

…They seem to think that using a blog or Twitter to brand someone a ‘rogue journalist’ or a ‘liar’ or fundamentally dishonest is somehow OK.

But it is not OK – and I hope the success of my proceedings against them will encourage them to think before they blog.

Ware has also written a similar piece for the Jewish ChronicleThe headline of the Daily Mail article refers to “Labour’s vile attack dogs”, the word “vile” being the traditional tabloid epithet for uncivil social media comments of which they disapprove.

As has been widely reported, the Labour Party recently agreed to make an out-of-court libel settlement to Ware and others after having attacked a BBC Panorama documentary about allegations of antisemitism in the party. The decision to settle was made by new party leader Keir Starmer – it was criticised by his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, and Ware is apparently of the view that Corbyn’s opinion is itself also libellous.

Ware’s citation of the term “rogue journalist” in the above appears to be a reference to an pamphlet critical of the documentary published online by Paddy French, a former ITV Wales journalist who now runs the Press Gang website. I’ve read it, and it makes several references to “rogue journalism” (the personalised form “rogue journalist”, though, does not appear). According to French, Ware is seeking £50,000 in damages, and the case will be heard in the autumn. He is asking for donations to a defence fund.

Without endorsing the pamphlet’s contents, I saw nothing that suggested to me that it was written in bad faith, and as such it seems to me that Ware would do better by answering it point by point rather than taking the matter to court. Perhaps the term “rogue” itself is the point of contention, but while the descriptor is derogatory it doesn’t really mean anything specific. French is being represented by Bindman’s, a firm I can recommend. (1)

On Ware’s more general point, there is certainly a lot of nonsense published by “alternative media”, some of it malicious and some of it dumped online by bad actors who want to undermine and neutralise the mainstream media for their own propaganda reasons. There are also many social media “commentators” who are very ready dismiss a story published by a mainstream outlet out-of-hand based on a preconception about bias or ownership – a lazy approach I hope I’ve always avoided despite having strong criticisms about particular stories and their authors. In my view, overarching theories of MSM bad faith are no substitute for critical engagement with the details presented in a particular story, and such theories fail to acknowledge checks and balances within journalistic processes.

Having said that, though, there are stories and journalists in the mainstream media that are “fundamentally dishonest”, as well as biases and vested interests that tip over from commitment to a particular perspective into a tendency to distort. Sensationalism remains an important part of the business model, especially in the age of clickbait. As such, we should should be wary of rhetoric that tends towards the wholesale delegitimisation of anyone outside the industry who makes substantive criticism that touches on journalistic integrity.

Imagine where this could lead: the logical endpoint would be that if you dispute how you are presented in a news story or a reject a quote attributed to you, then the journalist could say “you are calling me a liar” and sue you. You would then have to prove that you had been misrepresented, while facing the prospect of ruinous costs.

Footnote

(1) Ware is being represented by Mark Lewis, who came to public prominence a few years ago representing phone-hacking victims, most notably the family of Milly Dowler,  and he takes credit for having “closed down the News of the World”. He also famously represented Jack Monroe against Katie Hopkins, who had mistaken Monroe for someone else in online comments (Hopkins could have apologised and settled for a nominal amount, but decided it was more on-brand to dig in). For a time he was associated with the press reform group Hacked Off!, but he publicly broke with them in June last year. His allegation is that “they use genuine victims” of press misconduct, although there was no indication that he was speaking out on behalf of anyone in particular.

In 2018 Lewis was fined by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal for sending “sending offensive and profane messages to users on Twitter and Facebook”; however, the tribunal accepted in mitigation that he was responding to users who had been abusing him, and that his judgement at the time was impaired by medication.

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