Wednesday 11 May 2011

Alan Rusbridger: 'Privacy injunctions have not threatened Guardian's investigative journalism'

National newspapers may be expressing increasing outrage against privacy injunctions but Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger said last night that they have had no impact on his paper's investigative journalism.

"The Guardian has never yet been sued under any kind of privacy law. There have been general injunctions, which bind us, like anyone else. There have been actions over confidence. And I stand ready to be outraged at the first time someone sues us over an invasion of privacy," he said.

Rusbridger, giving the Anthony Sampson lecture at City University, added: "On privacy, I've never yet been threatened. If you look at investigative journalism in the last couple of years, the Guardian has done as much anybody. BAE, torture, policing of demonstrations, phone hacking, WikiLeaks and all that. Nothing we've done has been touched by privacy and I feel reasonably confident that the kind of stuff we do has a high public interest attached."

He did say, however, that because of the secrecy surrounding privacy injunctions it was hard to judge their number and general impact.

On libel law reform, Rusbridger said: "As journalists we have to convince other people, including the people we now especially want to influence – parliamentarians — that the public interest will be served by change. If we're going to win this argument we have to begin by acknowledging that our own interest – the journalistic instinct towards greater freedom of expression – clashes with
other interests, laws, ethical frameworks and narratives.

"If we want to ask parliament for more permissive laws, people are bound to ask the question: to do what? Can you really discuss libel and privacy without also asking whether self-regulation actually works? Can you pull at the tangled issues of libel without considering how you define the public interest in privacy cases?

"How, MPs reasonably ask, can we as an industry argue that self-regulation works when it evidently failed quite spectacularly over phone hacking? Phone-hacking – and the inadequate response so far of the regulator – matter because they betray a certain journalistic mindset to privacy and because they undermine the story we tell parliament and the public about why we should be trusted with self-regulation and with more permissive laws.

"We now know, for instance, that one newspaper employed at least four private investigators — one of them fresh from seven years in jail for blackmail and perverting the course of justice – to systemically hack, track, blag and otherwise pry into the private lives of numerous people in public life — from royalty, through politics to celebrities and blameless people who just happened to be caught up in the news, such as the relatives of the two Soham girls murdered by Ian Huntley."

He added: "What I've tried to suggest tonight is that it is increasingly difficult to look at one of the laws affecting free speech in isolation from each other – and from the sort of standards and expectations that are going to be widely debated in society in relation to government, the state, the internet and business.

"Where is the rounded debate about all this happening? In parliament, universities and think tanks; among lawyers and all over the web. Journalists themselves – caught between lobbying, a general defensive crouch, fighting cases and reporting – find it difficult to join in.

"One thing I'm sure of: it's not enough to assert our arguments as if they were self-evidently right and to use our privileged platforms to drive home one-sided advocacy. That's not how these issues will be resolved. We have to engage with the wider arguments."

Answering questions, Rusbridger said despite his criticism of the PCC he still favoured self-regulation of the press rather than statutory control.

Pic (Jon Slattery)

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