In response to the media bleating about being bashed by libel costs, claimant lawyers will often cite the gross injustice their clients face and that were it not for conditional fee arrangements, these poor claimants would have no power to get justice and fight back against the big bad media bastions. There is truth in this insofar as many members of the general public have been able to be compensated for having their reputations unduly trashed by the press.
But it is more often than not celebrities or high profile individuals (and their lawyers) who profit from the CFA schemes – the prime example to date being Naomi Campbell’s case against the Mirror for exposing her drug addiction (OK so she fought the case as a privacy based one but that was only because she couldn’t run a libel action as what had been exposed was true – so she relied on a privacy and confidentiality action. Read many of the judgments at the appeal and House of Lords stage and it might as well have been a libel case).
The Guardian is still reeling from its run in with the mighty Tesco. The paper had wrongly (as it turned out) suggested the supermarket giant may have been creatively steering clear of certain taxes. That little outing and settlement was seriously expensive for the Guardian, which is contesting a bill for £800,000 it has just received from Tesco’s lawyers.
So its not surprising its editor, Alan Rusbridger, is saying the playing field when it comes to libel is not one of big media versus small innocent victim. He cites recent research that shows the cost of fighting a libel action in England and Wales was 140 times higher than in the rest of Europe.
Rusbridger has consistently said there should be more debate and discussion of what the public should expect from the press and how this should be regulated. He says the press need to keep themselves in check but that the politicians can no longer bury their heads in the sand.
Mediabeak would add to this that there is plenty of sand in Iraq which the government are currently trying to keep much – such as the papers over the decision to go to war there – buried under). So it is high time that politicians, the press and public need to engage over what is an appropriate balance between freedom of the press and informing the public on the one hand, and bringing the press to book where justified, on the other.