Inset: Peter Stothard. From left: Stewart Purvis, John Ware, Nick Robinson and Michael Crick at the Royal Television Society’s Hutton Report debate
Editors should carry out random spot checks on their journalists to ensure their notebooks fully comply with “the Nicholls tests”, according to former Times editor Sir Peter Stothard.
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He added that journalists should be fully conversant with the Reynolds “qualified privilege” defence against the charge of defamation.
Stothard – speaking at a Radio Academy Speech Radio conference on the prospects for journalism after Hutton – was referring to the defence which journalists can invoke if their stories can be shown to be in the public interest and not motivated by malice, even if ultimately shown to be inaccurate.
He felt this would have been an adequate defence for former BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s airing of his “sexed-up dossier” report on the Today programme that led to the Hutton Inquiry.
“My recommendation is that every practising journalist should get to grips with Reynolds [the 1999 House of Lords ruling on former Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds’ libel action against The Sunday Times] and understand it. It should be the one-page training manual available to all.”
The “Reynolds defence” is underpinned by 10 tests – set out by Lord Nicholls in the House of Lords – which a story must satisfy before the defence of qualified privilege should be accepted by a judge.
“Everything about the Nicholls tests is true,” said Stothard. “It’s still astonishing how few people know about them. Every editor should apply them and every journalist should know about them.
There are so many practical things you can learn, that are absolutely critical to reporting stories of public interest but are wrong.”
Stothard, now editor of the Times Literary Supplement, also recommended that journalists should date all pages of their notebooks.
Investigative journalist Michael Crick believes the BBC will be “weakened” by the Hutton Report, which will slow down the corporation’s editorial process and increase costs.
Speaking from the audience at a post-Hutton Report discussion organised by the Royal Television Society, Crick said: “In the years ahead, as a result of what happened, people [at the BBC] will want extra opinion, an extra source, which will make the whole process of doing this harder.
“The BBC will end up getting scooped and the news will more expensive.”
Crick’s Newsnight investigation into Iain Duncan Smith was axed in October after the then Conservative Party leader threatened legal action.
Panorama reporter John Ware, who was on the panel, disagreed, insisting that investigative journalism at the BBC was “in good health”.
“Not even in the John Birt era did I sense a reduction in that. Even though he had political fish to fry, we still broke stories,” he said.
MCNAE ON NICHOLLS
Lord Nicholls set out 10 circumstances that a judge should take into account when deciding whether the duty and interest tests were met, in which case the media would have a defence: 1. Seriousness of the allegation. The more serious the charge, the more the public is misinformed and the individual harmed, if the allegation is not true.
2. Nature of the information and extent to which the subject matter is a matter of public concern.
3. Source of the information. Some informants have no direct knowledge of the events. Some have their own axes to grind or are being paid for their stories.
4. Steps to verify the information.
5. Status of the information. The allegation may have already been the subject of an investigation which commands respect.
6. Urgency of the matter. News is often a perishable commodity.
7. Whether comment was sought from the claimant. He may have information others do not possess or have not disclosed. An approach to the claimant will not always be necessary.
8. Whether the article contained the gist of the claimant’s side of the story.
9. Tone of the article. A paper can raise queries or call for an investigation. It need not adopt allegations as statements of fact.
10. Circumstances of publication, including timing.
Source: McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists
By Wale Azeez