Sunday, 3 February 2013

The Spectator Leveson Debate

We were "the spectators" this week of a conversation between Max Mosley, Guido Fawkes, Mail journalist Richard Littlejohn, Dr Evan Harris and others. The occasion was a debate asking whether Leveson is a fundamental threat to the free press which was organised by The Spectator and chaired by famed journalist and broadcaster Andrew Neil. Fawkes and Littlejohn were for the motion, together with John Wittingdale MP (Chairman of the House of Commons Culture Media and Sport Select Committee), arguing that Leveson represented an insidious threat to free speech; Chris Bryant MP (yes, the labour MP for Rhondda famous for that photo in those underpants), was against the motion, alongside Mosley and Evan Harris, arguing not that free speech should be curtailed, but that Leveson contained some sensible practical suggestions for reining in press intrusion and protecting innocent people's privacy, not least improving rights of redress. 

It was a shame that the one lawyer on the advertised panel couldn't make it on the night "because of work commitments". Something really should be done about law firms' long hours culture.  Being one speaker short after proceedings had begun, Neil spotted MP and free speech campaigner Evan Harris in the audience and invited him to join the panel instead.  We all watched amazed as he scribbled down a quick speech in front of our eyes, in the 10 minutes the other speakers took their turns.  He then took to the podium himself to deliver an an argument as eloquent and persuasive as the best of his co-panellists.  Impressive. 

It was a lively affair, with strong views and feelings expressed on both sides of the panel - the emotional charge of the evening heightened by the fact that the two journalists present had covered some of the more embarrassing episodes in their fellow panellists' lives (MP's expenses, sexual peccadilloes - you get the picture) and, in the case of Fawkes, didn't hold back from the occasional very personal reminder of this to underline some of their more serious debating points (ie questioning politicians' true reasons behind the desire to restrict the press). Just as strong feeling came from the floor: a collective distaste of politicians citing the need to protect grieving families from press intrusion (the Dowlers, the McCanns) when the public suspects the real motivation for wanting to curb the press is far more likely politicians' self-interest.  Also perplexity as to why the press - the tabloids in particular - didn't reveal known suspicions about the Savile affair long before the horrible truth finally seeped out.

But the big surprise of the evening was how much consensus there was on the point that one of the biggest problems with the balance between press freedoms versus privacy rights currently is the system for funding libel litigation to give injured parties a proper right of redress: suing for defamation is a rich man's game - even a Conditional Fee Arrangement won't cover the other side's legal costs if a case is lost.  Few ordinary folk can take that risk.  Mosley told the Leveson Inquiry last year that probably only 1% of the population can afford to sue.  And he put this case again very well at this Spectator event, arguing that the Leveson reforms are required if only to bring in the proposed new inquisitorial arbitration service for handling claims such as libel and breach of privacy.

Is it just me, or do all roads at the moment seem to be leading back to the issue of  litigation costs...?
New reality TV show for the Autumn promises mass Appeal: the Court of Appeal is to allow cameras into its court rooms for the first time from October this year.  Announcing the move, Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge explained the decision not to allow cameras in the lower courts or in long jury trials was for fear of provoking disruption and deterring witnesses. 

Currently the only court to allow cameras routinely is the Supreme Court, so this trial in the Court of Appeal is significant - although Lord Judge doubted it would create great television, saying "In most cases I suspect John and Jane citizen will find it incredibly dull".
As if Liverpool wasn't "glam" enough, visiting this vibrant city to catch up with our good friends at Weightmans, we learned this week that Tate Liverpool is poised to open its exhibition on Glam! - The Performance of Style Culture in just a few weeks.  70s glam emerged from the British art schools of the day of course (think Brian Ferry, Brian Eno, David Bowie), and so the exhibition seeks to explore the links between the art, the music, the dance scene and the fashion that defined the era, as a serious exercise in art history. Hmm. Think perhaps someone just wanted to put on something fun that would pull in the crowds.  Well with treats in store from David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman and others, as well as a plethora of psychedelic colours, false eyelashes and disco balls, I'm not complaining!  In fact, as the exhibition is so short and will not apparently be coming to London, I'm thinking we should make a special detour when we visit Weightmans' Manchester office later this month, just so we can take it in.

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