Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, News of the World boss Colin Myler and Ian Hislop of Private Eye defended original reporting against the "chilling" costs of legal action yesterday before the House of Commons select committee on culture, media and sport.
Rusbridger and Hislop warned that newspapers are becoming wary of controversies involving wealthy individuals and companies because of the potential legal costs involved. Highlighting the increased use of privacy law Hislop warned of "censorship by judicial process." Colin Myler also concentrated on privacy law. Rusbridger was more concerned about libel. All agreed that original reporting is facing new obstacles and that legal costs are threatening the publication of significant information. These legal issues add to the financial pressure imposed by declining circulations and revenues. In Mr. Rusbridger's words "We are faced with the prospect for the first time since the Enlightenment of communities not having any verifiable source of news." Critics will argue that "they would say that wouldn't they." My question concerns the future: if established media companies with deep pockets are intimidated by privacy law, libel and conditional fee agreements, what hope is there for community funded websites? Economic models that struggle to pay for reporting will struggle harder to meet legal costs. Taking on powerful targets is one of the most important public services journalism can perform, but ensuring accountability is expensive. When we talk about new economic models we must consider how they will find the funds to publish stories that speak truth to power. A tough legal battle is gruelling for an editor who is confident about his story and backed by a good QC, libel insurance and a supportive employer. To escape the perils of self-censorship smaller outfits will need some very generous pro-bono legal advice.