Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Will abusers like Savile still hide behind new laws?

Following the Leveson Inquiry rules for reporting look set to get even tighter and we have much to lose from over-regulating the media, argues Don Anderson

So why didn't the BBC and newspapers fasten onto the Savile story sooner? Was it foot-dragging? Sloth? Fear of the power of celebrity? Or did they just not know and the problem was therefore ignorance?

All these accusations are being made of broadcasting, print and even online journalism and there might be truth in some of that finger-pointing, but it has not been the main problem. The big stumbling block is the defamation law of the United Kingdom.

I learnt this lesson the hard way early in my journalistic career when reporting the Troubles. Journalists need sources and in common with many hacks, I had sources who were members of the Provos. They were not my most reliable sources, but you could glean as much from what they avoided saying as what they did say.

One day I did something ill-advised. I broadcast on the BBC that members of the IRA met in a certain building from time to time, because that is where I myself met them. I'm being more careful as I write this than I was at the time some 40 or so years ago - being somewhat wiser - because lawyers for the owner of the establishment I had referred to speedily told the BBC that their client intended suing for substantial damages unless I could prove what I had said.

Merely stating that I myself had met members of the IRA at that place would not be proof enough. What members of the IRA? Their names please? Without any conviction, I contacted my IRA sources and asked if they would appear in court as witnesses for my defence. There was a moment of wide-eyed silence before I was told very succinctly to go and do something contortionist. The BBC settled out of court for a five figure sum, plus costs, and I was lucky to continue with my career.

What I learnt brutally was that it was not enough to report the truth because I had done just that. I needed to be able to prove my assertion. I couldn't do that. Within that tale lies the problem confronting journalists who feel that they have a story which is true, but which they could not substantiate to the level needed in a court of law.

I think many knew or strongly suspected what was going on with Savile, but unless they could summon immature and vulnerable victims to testify publicly, their hands were tied.

The difficulties of achieving that were immense if not insurmountable decades ago. It is noteworthy that most of those now coming forward are mature women, who are better able to withstand the unpleasant publicity and pressures.

No editor could go with such a story, with most of the country believing Savile was to charity and good works what St Francis of Assisi had been to birds, in a manner of speaking.

Savile had achieved the status of national treasure. Remember that the makers of the ITV documentary outing Savile initially came under attacks led by Savile's nephew Roger Foster who said: "I just get so disgusted and disappointed by it. The guy hasn't been dead for a year yet and they're bringing these stories out.

"It could affect his legacy, his charity work, everything. I just don't understand the motives behind this. It's very, very sad you can say these things after someone's died and the law says you can't defend yourself when you're dead."

But even if guilty as charged by journalists, people can defend themselves very effectively when alive, particularly when quite rich and expecting the backing of highly respectable national organisations, which could be expected to field an army of character witnesses in your favour.

The damages for the news organisation could have been eye-watering. Savile's death made what has happened possible. It is as simple as that.

All this happens at an interesting juncture. The findings of the Leveson Inquiry looking into reporting tactics of some national newspapers could make the uncovering of awkward truths even more difficult.

The Daily Telegraph - mouthpiece of conservative Britain some might say - had harsh words in an editorial about a new Defamation Bill presently before parliament. This was the paper which uncovered the MP expenses scandal.

The editorial said: "The most illuminating story of the [party] conference season so far came not from a broadsheet investigation, nor from a TV interview, but from the disclosure in The Sun of Andrew Mitchell's foul-mouthed rant at police officers guarding the gates of Downing Street ...

"We are sleepwalking into a world in which such ostensibly demotic stories - which actually reveal deeper truths and spark useful national debates - will be officially frowned upon.

"The growing clamour for Press regulation backed by statute threatens a priceless British freedom. A Conservative prime minister should have no part of it."

There has been talk among the political classes of creating a powerful new regulatory body to oversee the British Press, but critics are calling that a potential threat to free speech.

The Savile story exposed a litany of misery which should have been made public long ago. I have another litany in mind as I write. The Hillsborough cover-up, the Iraq dodgy dossier, paedophile priests, Press bribery of police, phone hacking, and the latest - high-ranking, retired military officers being paid to lobby. You could add more from here.

If you think it all should remain concealed, then support draconian privacy law proposals. But don't subsequently complain about a hidden injustice and don't expect anything from whistle-blowing.

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