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Law Column: Pre-emptive strikes against regional dailies

Just when I was beginning to think that I had seen it all in the world publishing law, a couple of pre-emptive strikes last week against two large regional dailies stopped me in my tracks.

Journalist working on the nationals may be familiar with ‘reputation management’ lawyers trying to prevent stories ever seeing the light of day, or at least trying to influence the content, but they are pretty rare in the regional press.

Which is why I found two attempts to stop journalists from making any further enquiries (or as rugby fans might say: get your retaliation in first) by two well known firms of solicitors, was so memorable.  You go for years without reputation managers bothering you, and then two come along at once.

In both cases, the reporters (and their news desks) had uncovered what appeared to be at best incompetence, and at worst, misconduct, by companies carrying out high profile public functions.  Being good journalists, they were digging around to see if there was any substance to the allegations.  To use legal language, they were engaged in ‘responsible journalism’.

They also knew that to have any chance of getting their stories through legalling and into their papers and online, they had to be able to show that they had checked out their sources; investigated the facts; established whether or not there was anything in the allegations; put the allegations to the CEOs of both companies; make sure that the articles gave both sides of the story; and so on.

All straightforward stuff.  After all, this is what responsible journalists do.

But then along came the reputation management solicitors.  They clearly know the law, but what was striking was the way in which they tried to twist and distort the obligations which are designed to encourage freedom of expression and good journalism, into reasons why the stories should not be published.

For example, one of the reporters was criticised because, it was said, the mere fact that he was making enquiries demonstrated that he did not know anything about the background, and so should not write anything at all.  By this twisted logic, it appears that these lawyers believe that a journalist may only make enquiries if s/he already has the facts to hand.

And the other lawyer went further: having reviewed the background to the matter in question, the lawyer declared grandly that there was no reason whatsoever for any story to be published.

As you can imagine, a reputation management lawyer telling an editor what is, or is not, a legitimate news story went down like the proverbial.  You will not be surprised to learn that the editor’s response to this breathtaking arrogance was short and to the point!

There is little doubt in my mind that both these attempts to influence and/or prevent the stories getting out, were just forms of bullying.  The strategies were simple enough: we want to scare you into submitting to our demands because we are well known, experienced, and expensive, London-based lawyers; we know best; and if you don’t do what we want, then our clients may decide to sue you.

What the lawyers did not take into account was that the two editors in question are experienced and robust, and they know exactly how they and their journalists should behave, and what is, and is not, acceptable.

Perhaps this sort of thing will become the norm as the post-Leveson landscape becomes clearer.  I guess we will know soon enough.  But even if the regional press is to be subjected to this sort pressure more frequently, responsible journalism will always trump demands from those who prefer those pesky journalists to mind their own business.

And finally – did the two stories ever see the light of day?  Well, because the journalists in both instances did their jobs, one of them has now been published, and the other has been spiked.  In both cases, a good outcome.