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Legal nuggets from the Society of Editors conference

There were some pretty serious discussions at last week’s Society of Editors’ conference, all generally related to the commercial side of publishing in the digital age.

But for those interested in matters legal, a few nuggets are worth mentioning – and that’s without referring to Paul Dacre’s well publicised, and much commented on, criticisms of Conditional Fee Agreements, the developing law of privacy, and Mr. Justice Eady!

In the final session of the conference, Sir Christopher Meyer, the outgoing chairman of the PCC, made make an impassioned plea to the industry to continue funding the PCC by warning of the “monstrous regiment of judges and lawyers” who are just waiting in the wings to exercise control over the press.

We are all going to miss Sir Christopher and his memorable one-liners. Citing the recent favourable report from the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, Sir Christopher warned that it would be “fatal, fatal, fatal” for the press to become complacent about the future of self regulation.

He exhorted the industry not to emasculate the PCC, fearing that it might not otherwise survive as a public service, independent, regulator.

Speaking as a member of the “monstrous regiment” (a fifth columnist, perhaps?) and whilst not venturing into the thorny topic of funding, your correspondent cannot help thinking that the chairman is right – a statute-based alternative will inevitably lead to litigation and judicial supervision.

Earlier, the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas (who also retires from his post next cpring) reviewed Freedom of Information and Data Protection from the regulator’s standpoint.

After describing FoI as ‘a fragile flower’, he said this country’s legislation is “well established and a resounding success, one of the strongest in the world, which is now part of the fabric of public life”.

Though there are still areas for improvement, Mr Thomas said he was generally happy with the way FoI operates. Whether journalists who have tried to extract information from certain public bodies would agree, is a moot point.

Data Protection, on the other hand, still continues to raise rather more difficult issues. 2008 has been a busy year for the regulator, mainly as a result of the government regularly losing data.

The Information Commissioner confirmed that his organisation continues to take a strategic approach to data protection – it is easier to get data processors to comply with the law than to prosecute them. Presumably, his successor will not see the need to take a different approach.

Importantly, the negotiations concerning the possible prosecution of journalists who break data protection law have resulted in a sensible compromise – at least for the time being.

Just before the conference opened, every newspaper in the country was sent a detailed note of the current state of the law, which the Commissioner has approved. It’s worth reading if you haven’t done so already. After all, as Mr Thomas said, self regulation is just enlightened self interest.

And finally, in what was arguably the most important (and yet most sparsely attended!) legal session of the conference, the press received a reminder that in about 18 months time, the access and rights agreements with the Premiership and the Football Association will expire.

The existing contracts are pretty draconian, and there is no reason to believe that the Premiership or FA will be any less demanding in the next round of negotiations.

There will be more on this subject as time passes but for the time being, the advice is simple – sign nothing without checking with your own monstrous lawyer!

Solicitor Tony Jaffa is head of Foot Anstey’s media team and was a delegate at the 2008 Society of Editors Conference.
To contact Tony telephone 0800 0731 411 or e-mail