Monday, 24 June 2013

Ben Posford

Ben Posford is a complex man with interesting views on the line between individual and corporate responsibility. He is a claimant personal injury lawyer (a partner at Osbornes Solicitors) specialising in complex brain and spinal cord injury cases, and one of the 'hero' types that Neil Kinsella talked to me about previously in The Conversation, motivated to stand up for the little man or woman in the face of the large corporate monolith refusing to take responsibility for not looking after people properly.  A far cry from the image of the cynical, money-grabbing, ambulance-chasing, PI lawyer that some would have us believe is the norm.

Ben talked to me this week about the nonsense that is the Corporate Manslaughter Act and how the firepower it was supposed to bring has been little more than a damp squib.

"The idea of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 was that in addition to financial penalties, companies could be named and shamed to the extent they might have to carry a notice on their letterhead for a specified period of time after an offence saying they had been convicted under the Act.  But in practice, companies simply won't wear this, so instead they dissolve and then reappear in a different company shell with a new name - the same business, just re-housed and re-badged to get out of having to carry the slogan telling everyone of their offence. Gross negligence manslaughter is far better because it seeks to lay the blame at the door of individuals, and that is far harder to wriggle out of. But there's a balance: of course it's not right when individuals are hung out to dry by their employers when a problem lies with the system, or the culture, or management of a workplace. But businesses are run by people and the buck has to stop somewhere, particularly once the trail of responsibility leads you inside the senior management team."

Our conversation then took a tangential turn and we started to talk about parallel issues in other areas of law: from last week's Supreme Court judgment in the Prest divorce case, in terms of the use of corporate structures to hide things being put under scrutiny (the key issue here was whether the corporate veil could be pierced if it might be being used to hide assets of a divorcing party); to this week's publication of the Banking Commission Report, a major feature being the switch of focus to holding individual bankers to account, rather than the nebulous concept of "banking culture".

So in three very different areas of law we are seeing something of a fashion for corporate structures being ignored where they get in the way of personal responsibilities. A significant shift in the balance between individual versus corporate responsibility.  The latter may be great in theory, but perhaps we have learned that in practice it's too often used for individuals to slide out of responsibility.  The concept of corporate accountability was never intended to provide unscrupulous individuals new places to hide...
Some of you will know I'm a fan of Ray Bradbury's dystopian Fahrenheit 451, particularly Francois Truffaut's version of the story. I mentioned it in a blogpost this February, commenting on London Fashion Week's craze for Instagram diaries, which set me wondering we're inching towards a world where visual communication takes over from the written word. Imagine my delight when in response I was contacted by a fellow Fahrenheit 451 fan who has created this wonderful video summarising not just the plot but the underlying themes of this classic tale in under three minutes. It uses stop-motion edit technique, which you'll enjoy.

He makes some particularly interesting points about the relevance of this narrative in the modern day. Originally written in the days of McCarthyism, Collins considers the themes just as relevant in today's surveillance-obsessed world. 

You can see the video here. Enjoy!
BBC Correspondent Joe Lynam is more used to delivering, rather than making, the news. But this week he and his partner made headlines themselves as their dash to the maternity hospital ended up with the delivery of a second son in the front seat of the family Vauxhall Astra.

We had been surprised earlier in the week when a Newsnight opportunity we'd lined up was cancelled at the last minute as he took an unplanned day off when Riina went in to labour. The next we knew was an email the following morning headlined "Wow. What a night!" announcing the arrival of Sean Martin Lynam (3.2kg) and signing off "Riina is fine, but dad is in need of sedatives :)"

Benedict Moore-Bridger wrote up the story for the Evening Standard and it is currently one of the most read on the website this week. 

Congratulations Joe! But are these really the lengths you expect us to go to now, to make headline news?? 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Megan Murphy

Fast FT’s Megan Murphy has a lot to say about the role of journalists in an age where citizens break their own news. Megan is running the FT’s revolutionary new direct-to- mobile news service, which launched at the end of May promising market-moving news and views 24 hours a day.

The idea is that the FT’s world-leading financial journalists, working together across different time zones, can bring you the stories you need to know as they happen, wherever they happen, and wherever and “whenever” you happen to be.

“Forget front page exclusives! Forget by-lines and physical paper! The web and social media have totally revolutionalised breaking news, and journalists need to think differently today about both input and output: how they approach stories; and how they process and deliver news. Today’s consumer of news doesn’t need it dressed up. It’s all about accessibility: people’s time is so compressed, they need their news on the move, wherever they are, whatever console they have to hand – mobile, iPad, desktop, whatever. What’s needed is a simple, straightforward straight-to-mobile service from a reliable source.”

We talked about the launch of GuardianWitness, her rival paper’s response to the explosion in citizen journalism, creating a platform for readers to submit their own videos and stories. Surely citizen journalism undermines the role of the traditional journalist? I ask her.

“I have a lot of respect for what The Guardian is doing and of course citizen journalism is having a big impact on what we’re doing at the FT; we are able to engage with the people consuming our content to a far greater degree than before and that’s exciting. My view on citizen journalism is that it actually puts our role as professional journalists into sharper relief; what I mean is, our skills are more valuable than ever before because in this age of information overload, people need to know which stories they can trust and they need context. Yes Twitter, and the ability for ordinary people to break news as it happens around them (here she cites the experience of how the story of the Boston bombings firstreached the public) is most definitely a threat to news organisations if they don’t respond to how people’s news consumption habits are changing. And let’s face it, as an industry we have been painfully slow to facing up to this change and adapting our models. We are under threat of the market being eaten up by far less credible competitors. But, what the FT offers is authority, as a news organisation you can trust to be accurate, unbiased and to put things into the correct context. I believe passionately that there’s a fantastic opportunity for the FT to say to readers, you know we have the world’s best journalists, that we are the world leaders in providing financial markets information and analysis and now we can match the less credible sources in terms of the ability to break news fast and get it to you in the way (and in the time) you need it. There’s no-one in the world who can do this for you better.”

Megan’s emphasis on the value professional journalists can add in terms of putting stories into context and helping people sift what’s significant and what’s not, puts me in mind of Legal Cheek editor and Guardian freelancer Alex Aldridge’s idea of journalists as curators of news.

“I think that’s a good analogy” says Megan. “We call our new digital drive at the FT “Digital First” but of course it’s not really about technology at all: it’s about attuning our content to readers’ needs. Perhaps we should have called this strategy Readers First.”
We love Netmums' Father's Day challenge to the "Dimwit Dad TV Stereotype". Citing such cult TV characters such as the hopeless Homer Simpson, the ineffectual father in My Family played by Robert Lyndsay, Hugh Dennis's inadequate dad in Outnumbered, even Peppa Pig's porky pa-pa. and all these hopeless male role models are paired with smart-thinking, practical, competent women. Netmums surveyed 2000 parents and found that most simply don't find this funny any more. It no longer resonates with the reality of most modern day families, where dads often have just as full-on a role at home. TV writers need to get with the programme and re-write this very tired script.  We wouldn't stand for such one-dimensional (and frankly discriminatory) treatment of mum characters these days after all). Let's respect the Dads in our families this Sunday. And let’s continue respecting them long after.
This week’s Amnesty Media Awards was a surprisingly uplifting event.  As I said last week it's always nice to be reminded in these post-Leveson days that some journalists really are heroes. 

You can see the shortlisted and winning stories here. A warning: Some of them are quite disturbing. It's a real eye opener as to what really goes on a lot of the time in other parts of the world.  But of course it's precisely because these tales are so harrowing that the journalists who risk so much personally to bring them to our attention should be so celebrated.

Another nice surprise on the evening was to hear a special mention given to Kysen friend, and multi award-winning journalist, Mira Bar-Hillel for a particularly moving article she wrote in The Oldie the plight of Israel's African refugees.  We are proud to know her!

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Sallie Bennett-Jenkins

Sallie Bennett-Jenkins’ work/life juggling act makes my life as MD of Kysen and mum of three (including twins) look like a leisurely stroll around Covent Garden piazza.  This lady balances a career as one of our top criminal QCs with a home life focussed on triplets of 16, twins of 13 plus a singleton of 11.  No, you haven’t made a mistake with your arithmetic; that’s six children altogether!

I first met 2 Hare Court’s Sallie a month ago when she kindly stepped in to do a Sky News interview for us that a client was unable to fulfil (about typical sentences and time served on the day Huhne and Pryce were released from custody).  We met in Temple at the crack of dawn to prepare for an 8.30 interview outside the Royal Courts of Justice and even at this unreasonable hour of the morning she looked polished and utterly immaculate.  In the words of former Evening Standard journalist, author and screenwriter Allison Pearson, “I don’t know how she does it”!

I spoke to Sallie again this week, keen to hear her take on the current Legal Aid row and how lawyers’ worries about threats to access to justice are so often misrepresented by certain parts of the media.  As one of our top-earning criminal QCs, her name was mentioned in a classic example this week: a Daily Mail piece naming the lawyers on the so-called “legal aid gravy train”.

“The article published this week is an example of the way the Government seeks to ignore the critical work we do in relation to the liberty of the individual.  Let’s leave aside the fact that the figures the Mail suggested I personally was paid per annum were nothing of the sort: they were sums earned over two or three years, not one; they included VAT at 20% and made no allowance for income tax and practise expenses I have to pay, nor for travel. None of this was explained. They do not reflect the fact that barristers have to make arrangements for their own pensions, they have no provision for payment if taken ill, and do not receive any paid maternity leave. The impression deliberately created was highly misleading.

The far more harmful problem however, is that the real issues in this debate are being distorted beyond recognition, which really doesn’t help a sensible public discussion.  The press often use the term that we as lawyers practising in criminal law are "defending criminals". We are not, we are representing those accused of crime by the state and who are innocent until proved guilty.  We have to remember some 45% of all people charged turn out to be innocent. A robust defence of those accused of crime lies at the very heart of a civilised system.

The example of Asil Nadir is often used to illustrate these sorts of pieces [indeed his photo dominates the Mail’s spread on the topic this week], as he famously rented a 23,000 pounds-a-month London residence for the duration of his 1m pound legal-aid-funded trial.  But this simply isn’t representative. 

It goes without saying, surely, that innocent people dragged through the criminal justice system need the protection and assurance that they will have access to the best legal representation  possible. The availability of a robust defence is essential to protect the integrity of our justice system; and it is critical to ensure that those who are innocent are acquitted and that convictions against the guilty are secure, and can’t be unpicked on the basis that a defendant was denied access to a proper defence.  After all, a rise in appeals resulting from an increase in unsafe convictions and miscarriages of justice will only mean a further drain on the public purse, so aside from the justice and human rights issues, skimping in this area is a false economy anyway.”

The Daily Mail piece quotes retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Hooper’s concerns that the withdrawal of defendants’ rights to choose their own legal representatives particularly hits those needing specialist expertise.  Sallie feels particularly strongly on this point: "In the last week, I have represented an 18 year old boy of good character accused of murder. He had much against him: preconceptions about his particular community in London; about the behaviour of young men men his age and his ethnicity; even his own timidity and inability to put himself across worked against him.

The conduct of his case demanded specialist skills in communicating with young people, those who are perhaps less able to express themselves, in order to draw out particular features that related to his defence. Over the course  of trial, we worked tirelessly, using all the skills garnered over nearly 30 years in practise, to test the evidence and to expose flaws in the prosecution case that lead to no evidence being offered against him. 

He left court able to return to his normal life rather than facing a sentence of life imprisonment with a minimum term to be served that would be expected to be in excess of 25 years.  His family wrote to me, expressing their deep gratitude for the way in which the case had been handled and explaining what an impact our work had had on their lives.  These are the sorts of stories that should be making the headlines in the debate about Legal Aid and the work lawyers do in this area.  But of course they never do.”

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is quoted in the Mail piece saying that it is simply “not sustainable for tax payers to keep funding a legal aid system that has become one of the most expensive in the world”. But tell me, what happened to the Government’s pride in our world-leading legal system? When it comes to our commercial courts, the Government is only too happy to promote the fact we have one of the most enviable legal systems in the world, attracting cases from all over the world because judgments from the UK are so respected (and therefore more enforceable elsewhere).  We all know the statistics by now, that litigation involving former Russian oligarchs and other Eastern European parties accounted for an incredible 60% of all commercial cases in London last year.  It draws a very nice income stream in to the UK legal system. But of course our domestic criminal justice system can’t offer financial returns on investment in this way.  And in the absence of this, the Government appears to see these points about world-leading quality as a waste of tax-payers’ money.  This thinking simply isn't just.
We love the new FAST FT breaking news service! The irrepressible Megan Murphy, whom we first got to know at Bloomberg, then in her role as the FT’s law courts correspondent, is running the new service, which is highly appropriate given her reputation for living life at 120 miles per hour. 

The service, supported by a FAST FT Twitter account, promises "live reporting and comment on market-moving news" and is part of the FT’s new Digital First Strategy announced earlier this year. 30 journalists took redundancy at this time to make way for 10 new digital journalist posts. The face of journalism is changing fast. With Megan at the helm, this latest development is in very good hands.

So what did you make of the new Star Trek Into Darkness? Talking to friends, the opinion on this film is divided, Marmite-style. People seem to either love it (I did!) or hate it. But taking a poll in the office this week, I was shocked that half people in our team have not only never seen any of the Star Trek films or TV programmes, but deliberately give a swerve to any story centred on space, in fact any Sci Fi fare at all. "Too unrealistic", they say, and they simply "don’t see the point". I’m finding this hard to take in! One of the reasons this is a favourite genre for me is precisely what these stories have to say about our own society, altering one truth to show an aspect of our daily reality in sharp relief. Who doesn’t love the ongoing tussle in the Kirk-Spok bromance to prove whether "logic" or "gut-instinct" is the better strategy?  And of course the answer is that both are important and team-work is everything.  What's not to like!  Am I out on a limb here? Someone tell me I’m not alone...