My family has had bad experiences with the hard end of the press when certain media got it wrong whether by mistake or otherwise. I have sued on occasion and won four libel cases against newspapers.
I do believe in holding them to account for what they say, especially by argument and showing facts. Use law only when the defamation is very wrong and job threatening, as well as being false, damaging and not privileged. I should add that a reasonable explanation after the event should normally make legal action impossible or unnecessary.
I will still stand in Parliament and fight for the right of the press to be wrong because the right only to be right is no right at all.
It is the job of the media to hold all of us to account and, yes, that can frequently be embarrassing and sometimes wrong. A free press matters. Public argument and debate, and embarrassment, are often the way forward. When it comes to new legislation, except for the necessary proposals by Sense about Science and others who defend the public interest in sharing of information and who seek to promote public safety and to expose charlatans or bad corporate behaviour, I am likely to not be in support, because most legislation on privacy and cover-ups makes things worse rather than better. When governments start to legislate they and we end up with things like criminal libel Acts, such as the legislative panic after the Peterloo troubles in 1819.
Privacy is a set of overlapping issues and there can be problems with the use of libel and defamation laws. Recall, for example the Spectator libel case, when Aneurin Bevan, Morgan Phillips and Richard Crossman, successfully sued the paper and received compensation for reporting on their drunkenness at an international conference. They knew the report to be true.
We have got some problems here. Go to the Amnesty International Media Awards and remember what things can be like in the rest of the world. Look at the way defamation is used other countries, such as in Singapore, or recently in Thailand.
It is important to remember the good side of the press and the use of the media for the public good. After Rupert Murdoch’s daughter married a man who was Ghanaian, The Sun never again came near to racism. That has helped to make the general population notice skin colour like eves and hair – noticed but not a signal for a particular attitude, reaction or behaviour.
Paul Dacre’s Daily Mail campaign against the killers of Stephen Lawrence has affected attitudes for the good in a number of ways. Think to the way the press was engaged in campaigns for wearing seatbelts or reducing the levels of over the limit drink driving, cut significantly with no changes in law, penalties or enforcement. It is in the public interest to work with the media that gets things known and done. The media has the responsibility to make available to the many what is known to the few.
The Government has put out a draft bill on defamation, some of which is all right and some of which is bad. The Joint Committee published a good report. We will have reform on defamation and possibly later on privacy.
Attention in this area will let us build up the good side of the press, and the ability of people, whether scientist or opinion makers, to use it. Neither do we need special media law to change the way that dominant proprietors behave. If their commercial success is too great, we can use ordinary monopoly law.
Many give the impression that the media are all wrong and the rest of us who criticize them are all right. Often it is the other way away around.