Is the UK’s reputation management industry destroying journalism? | openDemocracy Live

Is the UK’s reputation management industry destroying journalism? | openDemocracy Live

well here brilliant well we are all ready to kick off now um with today’s open democracy um webinar in which we’re asking i think what i think is a very important question is the uk’s reputation management industry destroying journalism and i’m been the head of investigations here at open democracy for a good length of time and the uk’s reputation management industry which in some ways is a polite term to describe what is effectively an entire nexus of consultancies lobbyists and primarily lawyers who are really whose job it is to stop people like me people like my colleagues both in the uk and around the world from publishing stories here at open democracy you know legal threats sadly are a daily part of times at least a weekly part of our life in the stories that we do we’re so focused on issuing transparency corruption human rights these are often the kind of stories that there’s an entire industry out there trying to stop and it’s remarkable it’s probably in many ways the size and scale the amount of money that goes into the industry it is trying to public interest journalism i’d say it’s probably might be bigger than the size of public the public industry interest journalism industry itself and open documentary we’ve had this and often as journalists we don’t talk about this it’s a kind of part of our life that we really often don’t talk about him we did break cover and open democracy a few months ago we told the story of how the now democratic union party leader jeffrey donaldson and his brother attempted to sue us a few years ago and and the difficulties that placed us in the huge financial perils of places you know and eventually even though that case never went to court it was never the papers were never served you know no judgment was ever found against us it still cost us huge amounts of time and money as well and this is really the experience i think you’re going to hear a lot about today that often it’s not about a case coming to trial it’s not about it’s not about a journal it’s been found or done something wrong it’s about an entire industry that exists to try and stymie journalism and i think it’s a really important issue and i think it’s one of these issues that so often doesn’t get the kind of interrogation it deserves i’m really lucky to be joined here today by a panel that i think are incredibly well um placed to interrogate this issue in um you know in as i say in the way i think it really does need to be interrogated we have uh rebecca vincent who’s a director of campaigns um at rsf rebecca is a human rights campaigner free expression advocate and a former diplomat with 15 years of ngo and diplomatic service and at rsf you know rebecca and her colleagues are really trying to shine a spotlight on the challenges they’re facing journalists and not just in the uk but around the world we’re also going to be joined today by um claire roo castle brown who’s an investigative journalist and the editor of the sarawak report and she has her own harrowing experiences of having to deal with this type of these kind of litigious reputation management trying to stop investigative journalism and last but not least we have susan cough tree who is a project director at the foreign policy center and has written extensively on a number of these issues most recently in open democracy talking about these challenges and the big thing you will hear about today a lot is a thing called slap which sounds you know um as the name suggests is quite a a violent uh a violent uh noun and what that means is it’s strategic lawsuits against public participation as you can see i have to read it because it’s a word i use all the time slap but i don’t always have it to hand in terms of what exactly means i wanted to start um by asking you susan could you explain like what is slap and where does this term come from is it the kind of thing we are seeing more of thanks peter and thanks very much for hosting this discussion um i’ve heard a few people question whether the acronym slap came first or the sort of phrase around it um so strategic litigation against public participation was originally kind of founded as a concept in the u.s but i would say it’s come increasingly to prominence uh in europe and the uk in light of um the murder uh or the assassination of daphne carolina galicia who was a investigative journalist in malta who at the time of her murder in october 2017 had upwards of 47 open libel cases against her and this sort of shed new light on uh this being the type of threat that journalists are investigative journalists are experiencing alongside clearly other forms of harassment um and very exciting in daphne’s case of course murder um and so what it speaks to is basically a legal uh threats being used as a tool to harass and intimidate journalists and vexatiously so so not with intent to necessarily you know genuinely resolve a grievance that you have but actually try to suppress information by using legal intimidation and common hallmarks are that there’s an inequality of arms and they’re often brought by people who have uh vast uh you know resources and wealth that they can throw at these services as you say that it’s not just lawyers also sort of pr and reputation management services um and they hound journalists uh with letters and with legal threats and sometimes they don’t progress um you know they don’t progress even to real uh letters of you know pre-claim action letters it can just start with with sort of threats uh informally uh and escalate and um what i would say is the research i’m doing at the prime policy center which is under a project called unsafer scrutiny we’re looking particularly at journalists who are investigating financial crime and corruption and how um you know those that they’re investigating usually do have deep pockets um and how they use uh legal intimidation and slaps as a way to suppress and you know any kind of public scrutiny into their wrongdoing um so that’s sort of the in a nutshell maybe to kick us off and rebecca i might bring you in here now to just if you wanted to talk about like you know the journalistic kind of experience of this you know what what’s it like for journalism is this something that you know that they’re feeling more and more um yes but also there’s part of this is that we now know more about it right and so in recent years i think um in fact my own entry point into slap was really not even directly working on kind of legal threats it was i i stumbled into it in my work campaigning on the case of a journalist who was assassinated in malta daphne carolina galicia um malta was a great example of of how um threats such as these actually impact the broader press freedom climate in any given country or or transnationally because what we saw was a situation um where the independent media were systematically silenced on an issue at the time that was related to pilatus bank right um daphne caruana galicia refused to be silenced and she was kind of left more isolated because of that she was speaking out um but in the aftermath of her assassination i think a lot of our organization’s free expression organization started to look into this in a more kind of campaigny way this has traditionally been more the area of lawyers so you know seuss has mentioned that the um the acronym is a bit jargony it is in fact and in fact i’m often the non-journalist in the room of journalist and the non-lawyer in a room of lawyers but when you look at what it really is it’s abuse of the law to silence public participation whether that’s journalism whether that’s international um activism whether climate change campaigners for example have faced this often we see it in academia now now that we know more about it and confuse it together um but very what hap often what happens to journalists is um they are isolated they are intentionally pursued in a way that singles them out that leaves them at greater risk um it’s very often combined with other types of threats and that’s a real that’s a point i really want to make is that we cannot just look at this as a compartmentalized issue in its own silo very often the same journalists who are facing these types of threats are also facing extensive online abuse threats of violence and other things so this is just part of a climate part of building pressure very often against individuals and what what has happened really as well is that um there’s been kind of a culture of secrecy around all of this because this is not new and in fact lawyers have known this for years we’re just sort of sort of starting to uh to become more aware of it in terms of how it impacts our work but media lawyers have certainly been aware of this for years and in fact some of the bigger media outlets have very often complied with such threats that’s why they’re effective when everybody sort of just complies kind of quietly deals with this doesn’t expose it for what it is which is an attempt to silence critical reporting then it’s allowed to exacerbate and then when it is um used against journalists who don’t have that type of support we can see the impact on them being even more significant um a really good example is a case of carol kudwallider here in the uk um where erin banks went after her not for reporting that she had done in the guardian and the observer although she was speaking about the same things that had been uh published through those outlets he went after her specifically for something she said in a ted talk and something she tweeted and that really left her more vulnerable and we see this repeated far too often um but very often it’s it’s these these individual journalists these really scrappy individuals very often women i have to say including claire who i know is um is going to share a bit about her experience in a minute that are the ones fighting what we need to see i think is um greater solidarity among the media community in general and exposing the shedding light on it and fighting back together because one thing we’ve also seen is when you when you call it out sometimes you can call their bluff and very often that is enough to sort of defuse the situation not always but it can happen and i’ve seen that um happen even very recently in malta where this still remains a big issue thanks rebecca and one of the things i’ve always been really struck with this is you know like working with someone like open democracy like when someone threatens us legally we are really always trying to push as far as we can go and to get our stories out as much as we can but i i’ve worked in traditional newsrooms often just a single legal letter from somebody is enough to stop a story especially in smaller outlets you know i’ve worked in you know regional press and places like that the very threat of legal action will often be enough to stop a story unless there’s a really big impetus behind it i think it’s really underappreciated just how effective some of these issues are there are some of these threats can be as well like there’s and there’s a there’s a bit of a murder around it when it comes to journalists too journalists don’t really want to talk about how legal threats have stopped them doing stuff you know it’s especially in smaller newsrooms in environments where you know um publishers would they don’t want to risk going to court they don’t want to risk the expense of going to court they don’t want to risk any of that so often they will will just you know they will either pay up they’ll settle out of court even if they believe they’re in the right or or they will just not publish stories when they send the right to reply letter in and the letter comes back so just so people know in journalism if we’re doing an investigation if we’re doing any story we’re going to make an allegation about somebody we kind of we pretty much have to send them what’s called a right of reply so we we send them a letter we send them an email detailing the things that we’re going to say about them the allegations we have and giving them a chance to respond it’s responsible journalism it’s important to give other people their side the story but what can sometimes happen is you you get a legal letter back and that often happens we i was just dealing with one the other day a 15 20 page legal letter but very often the very threat at the end of that legal letter which might be we’re going to sue you if you publish can be enough to stop it especially you know journalists then go to their editor with that letter the editor sees and goes well i’m not you know i’ve got a lot on my plate i’m not going to deal with this this is a huge amount of work and that often goes unsaid there’s a kind of there’s a chilling effect that exists across journalism and at open democracy we are really trying i think it’s one of the things i’ve been so one of the reasons i’ve been so kind of uh pleased to work here is that there’s an active attempt not to to kind of you know to fight against it and i agree originally just saying there leads a lot of self-censorship and you see that a lot there’s a concern amongst journalists you self-censor and that’s one of the reasons why i think i was i’m so pleased that that claire is here for um who’s you know done fantastic reporting and in really difficult circumstances claire i wanted you can can you tell us a little bit about the work you do in your own experiences of of this kind of thing this kind of slap attack well i think thank you and please let me know if there’s an issue with my internet connection i’m i’m having a holiday in spain i have to admit um but um yes i mean everything all of you have said so far um rings so true i i spent most of my professional life working in big news rooms trying to persuade lawyers to risk uh doing investigative stories which they’d really rather you didn’t or if you were going to expose someone go and do it to someone who can’t fight back please so i i will sort of liberated away when i when i went off on my own and decided to use the internet in my way myself start up a blog and go after some genuine important unreported corruption stories um and i found that in that capacity i’ve been able to do stories um you know most recently like the 1mdb scandal the biggest kleptocracy seizure that the united states has has recently uh undergone um these stories i would not have been able to do in a normal newsroom and in fact you know i’ve had to try and work because the stories were so big because you know i was dealing with prime ministers major banks like goldman sachs and huge institutions and wealthy people i was approaching uh larger news organizations to try and get their backing and support and it was incredibly hard most of the time because you know for example the very first story i did um which was about this fraudster who stole billions from the malaysian people called jo lo we’d i i got the sunday times we worked together and and they brought out a story and and frankly they they they said we’ve had six of the top legal firms in london have got on to us threatening us left right and center calling you a madman politically motivated and all the rest we’re probably not going to come back to this story it’s costing us enough as it is and and that’s the problem you know so you have the weird situation where it’s the maria races of this world you know people like myself who are determined to stand up against this kind it’s not satisfactory at all um and i think part of the problem actually goes back to um the pre-action protocol that you mentioned it seems like a really good idea i was in the house of lords actually as a reporter when the whole thing was argued and put through and it was in the name of you know the weak target of vile news rooms you know this was why the pre-action protocol was brought in to prevent cases going too far and what it’s actually done is force news organizations to respond to the slightest you know to every uh rebuttal you have to keep bending over backwards and if someone’s got a lot of money what they’ll do is basically force you to keep engaging expensively until you go away and that has been refined into the reputation laundering industry so they’re not only just pushing you away uh but you know if you get onto them these super wealthy people but they’re coming back you know usually a year later when they realize they need to clean the internet from their you know the embarrassing but true story that affected them and they’ll come back um and uh start trying to harass you and cost you money so that you you clean their name out of things and i’ve been the target of an awful lot of that um people think that they can you know they can bully me into just getting their name out of it and and there are you know it’s such a lucrative business you’ve got dozens of law firms now um particularly in the uk vying for these rich clients uh for this work it’s blatant and shameless if you look at the advertising of these law firms you know you know offering to be the concierges the reputation concierges of ultra high net worth individuals it’s really disgusting and i do think actually it’s reached a pass where it’s actually for the law profession need to look at this abuse and clean up their house i think that’s part of the solution to this problem thank you very much claire i think that’s you know it’s the points you raise i see nick williams here as well as talking about reputation laundering and saying that’s that’s the best term for this i think it’s a very effective term i was actually talking to somebody uh actually a political donor conservative political donor today uh who uh was was talking about some work we’ve done recently and he was saying like how it was commending in the work and i was talking about the importance of repute what’s happening with reputation laundering and even he was saying yeah that’s a really good word that’s kind of what this is this and i was like yeah it is i think there’s a real need to kind of call a spade a spade with this stuff as well because what you are seeing is it is about trying to as you say you know we’ve got cats from belton’s case going through the courts at the moment which is really shocking this is a you know aphasia journalist former ft journalist wrote a book and i think it’s putin’s people you know very in a very in-depth account of what’s happening in the inner circle and a number of senior uh russian um um oligarchs uh including i’m pretty sure uh roman abramovich and correct me if i’m wrong are pursuing her through the courts um and one thing that really strikes me about this you know is how often london is used as the court venue for this for cases that have nothing that have no ostensible connection uh to the uk i’m thinking for example the great investigative journalist paul radu you know he’s a romanian citizen working for a u.s outlet being brought to court by an aziri mp uh in in london which seems to have no connection with the jurisdiction i wonder if we could you know what’s happening with that why is why is london becoming the global capital of this sort of reputation laundering um susan well i think there’s sort of two sides to that i mean one first of all is the attractiveness of the uk as a jurisdiction in which to put a legal threat because defending one is is very hard and very long and very expensive so the uk legal system sets a very high bar and just getting a threat from a uk uh law firm um is more threatening than you might get from another jurisdiction um so there’s that side of it and then there’s also the side where it’s possible in the uk to establish a reputation here relatively easily i mean there were reforms to the english and welsh uh libel laws back in 2013 that were supposed to kind of cut down on libel tourism but i think they kind of forgot to take into account that um if you’re wealthy enough it’s very easy to set up a reputation here to buy property here to um to set up a business here um and we also know that the uk especially through thanks to these great investigative gen you know journalistic investigations done by occlp and others that um the uk is uh being misused it’s it’s it’s legal and financial systems are misused for um illicit flows of of dirty money and and therefore once it’s here it can also be used uh to um you know for for services that can suppress uh investigations into that wrongdoing so it’s sort of a very um horrible symbiotic relationship and um and so in terms of paul’s case um he yes is a romanian uh journalist and he was sued again personally and that’s another hallmark often of these types of legal threats is that the journalist is also isolated as an individual and that is possible in the uk um as well as you know the publisher or the news outlet um and he was uh i mean occlp are registered in the us and and the azerbaijani mp was able to say that he uh having property in london um despite being an active you know mp in azerbaijan had a reputation to defend here and enough um you know articles uh relating to the azerbaijani laundromat were opened in in london so you know but if everything’s online we’ll consume the news online these days that part is not very uh difficult i mean another kind of really clear case with this is is an ongoing case with a business news publication called reality it’s a swedish um business uh publication published in sweden in swedish um but of course you know available online and um a couple of investigative journalists there last year were looking into the business dealings of a swedish businessman who’s domiciled in monaco and um he didn’t respond well to that and decided to sue them in the uk um despite you know the fact that he could have taken legal action in sweden but it’s my understanding that there he wouldn’t have been able to um take action against them as individuals and due to the swedish system there would have been more of a cost capping and they would have had to go through a regulatory process as opposed to just going straight to to legal threats um and uh currently that case is is ongoing and you know that’s been it was filed just before christmas so you know six months uh plus already these journalists um have been waiting and something similar to as you kind of spoke to the beginning uh peter about the cases that you face is this kind of waiting for things to happen and the psychological toll and the resources that takes on and diverts you away from actually what you know you’re supposed to be doing um and so yeah yes having personally experienced that the personal legal uh the personal threat uh libel threat which is really you know it’s happened a number of times where there was you know you get a libel letter not just address the organization you work for but also address to you personally and that seems to be it’s something that’s only happened in the last few years and and you know and i have to say personally it’s a very stressful thing to happen like it’s very stressful like you know you can find out someone’s financial affairs quite easily you can find out if they own a house it’s not hard to do i can find out any but you know like and that is public records really and so it’s not hard you know it’s it’s not hard to start to see how things could get very very different you know how your own personal like life can be massively affected by it and it’s you know i think it’s kind of probably a slightly under told story that the psychological toll that i can take on people and just taking taking back this a bit more this kind of whole libel tourism aspect um rebecca like you know is this something do you you know what to what extent do you feel like this is something that is affecting the kind of journalism that we’re seeing being done do you feel like this is something that is actually kind of having a real impact on what what’s covered and what’s not being covered absolutely and you have to uncover pockets of it because it might not even be obvious from here because of course london law firms are doing this in in other countries around the world and so you have to then find country experts that can see it clearly for what it is and the british public is is largely unaware what what these firms are doing even if we kind of know about it there’s not really enough naming and shaming here so maybe we should name a few of these guys while we’re at it mishkandaraya carter rock shillings i mean it’s the same maybe three to five firms that come up and so many of these cases and you can go to a country like malta like malaysia and really see the impact that it’s having on the ground so you’ve talked about the the personal kind of impact of opening these letters so imagine if you’re like a small independent outlet maybe two or three staff maybe actually the finances are connected to your own home and you get this letter you know on london you know a big london law firm on the letterhead and it says private and confidential and it’s like you must you know take down every story about this specific topic this specific individual um most people especially if nobody’s talking about it if they don’t feel any solidarity for others most people would simply comply because um at the end of the day like you need somewhere to live you need to be able to sort of live your life and do other reporting but the impact is it can make certain topics certain companies certain people almost untouchable and somebody said in the chat um a little bit earlier that you know it results in self-censorship absolutely and as any of us who work in free expression know that’s that’s really probably the most serious obstacle to free expression around the world is self-censorship because it’s so difficult to measure to pinpoint and to counter because it’s you know it’s all these influences slap in other other ways that makes us um not cross certain lines and so absolutely it impacts the climate in many countries around the world i wanted i think that the global aspect of this is something that maybe isn’t always appreciated too because we’re used to seeing stories in the press to do with you know to do with the um to do with like kind of events in britain like probably the most famous libel trial in recent years was the johnny deck trial with with the sun you know and it feels in some ways like the days of big libel trials are not as big a thing so i think the casual kind of uh passing interests and current affairs might go ah it’s not that big a thing you know there’s defamation reform much needed deformation reforming than wales hasn’t gone far enough but compared to here in scotland and this particularly compared to northern ireland that is better than it was with a serious harm test so you might go actually it’s not a big issue but i think the global aspect of this which you mentioned there rebecca is is a really really important one that this is something that’s happening in london that’s having a global impact and claire i wonder if you could speak a bit more about like what does that look like if somebody say reporting from you know in the south from somewhere like sarawak like the impact that has on the story as you can tell globally well i think the point you made um you know 98 of libel cases go nowhere near a judgment um you know i lost my pension um and any spare money i had over a case that was never going to come to judgment and the guy pulled out uh but you know in order to stand to stand my ground i you know i i i was impoverished um it’s a huge huge um uh you know um attack on a journalist um i mean i’ve had death threats i’ve had people following me around i’ve had all the sort of intimidation that you meant social media attacks and and so on but nothing more you know visceral than the threat of losing the house over your children’s heads and you know i had two teenage boys i mean their response every time there’s an official looking letter that comes through our letterbox both my kids they go white you know mum could this be another letter you know that and and indeed we’ve had a lot of trauma um as a result of these these sorts of um you know kind of attacks on your very well-being um and the nature of these letters i think you know you have to laugh you’re right they’re very effective these guys are vicious you know you’re we we are quite restrained in our reporting clearly it’s you don’t you know it’s it’s only civilized to be so and you tend to be very restrained in what you say these lawyers write private and confidential at the top of an unrequited unrequested letter and abuse you for 10 pages you know they abuse your intentions they abuse your sanity they abuse your honesty um and then they say well you know we’re saying all these things and um you know you can’t you can’t tell anyone we said it um so it you know and they most times i mean they don’t get away with it with with me anymore because i’ve had so many of these letters and i know the game but time and again i’ve seen it being very effective against individuals who are trying to do the right thing in the public interest they’re scared off it’s deliberate and it’s an abuse um and it’s very unattractive and it should be dealt with yes i think that is quite remarkable you get these letters i just had one the other day which says you know like you’re not allowed to say any of this thing in public to anybody here’s private confidential you know why like where i’ve never signed up to anything saying this you know it’s it’s quite remarkable as you say it’s it’s you know and we’re look you know you often you have to work with a lawyer too to help you with some of this stuff or you know or you are like at times a small organization like us we have to try and find someone to help us or you’re doing it yourself and it’s really having to sit down painstakingly it’s happened to me many times with a 10-page legal letter at the end of it actually there’s nothing in it you know there’s 10 pages but it’s empty it’s 10 pages of smoke and mirrors and waffles usually there’s usually a um an objective and the objective is usually to get you to do something that has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the letter so there will be endless complaints that you somehow breach somebody’s privacy or data or that you’ve exaggerated you know what they did or that you used a word that was totally inappropriate for what they did and you know they’re going to come at you in different directions but you usually get to the meat of it round about you know the penultimate paragraph which tends to be but of course you know although we could destroy you over these ghastly things that you’ve done in your malicious ways um were you to remove my client’s name from all the um articles uh to do with this crime in which he was factually involved we will we will um happily drop all uh all about all of these matters um you know it the blackmail is often so blatant in one case um in order to get someone off my back and on my lawyer’s advice which i regretted and continue to because it only encourages them to come back i did comply with someone um and then they took their judgment they suddenly realized that they could clear all their name out of the british and european media but when they got to the states where a lot of my work had been reproduced online you know they were given two fingers by the various organizations because there are more protections um in the united states against these kind of defamation issues so what did the lawyers do they came back and they said um actually you know we’re going to come back and have another go at you here on these things oh unless you can give us a bit of help on copyright because if you give us copyright then we can go back to the united states and get them to take it down that way so i mean you know they are in the game of blackmail which fortunately my lawyer was able to remind them and that their um you know their privilege did not extend to crime and they backed off but you know that’s you know that’s how bad these outfits are and how badly they behave and you have we have to stand up to it peter from a practical perspective just saying very explicitly if you get one of these lattes you can do whatever you want with it it belongs to you it doesn’t matter if it’s marked private and confidential and ideally you know if you’re a journalist especially not attached to a big outlet ideally you can find a way to get some legal advice there’s some great organizations out there that are resources um for example the media legal defense initiative there’s others that we you know organizations like ours can try to connect you with um susan and i are involved in a big anti-slap coalition of ngos here in the uk so there’s places to get advice but you can do what you want with your letter um we work uh closely with the shift news in malta and caroline muscat there has published every single threatening letter she’s ever received she just published it and today none of them have actually followed through with a suit so it is quite possible to call someone’s bluff but again i would encourage anybody that can to get you know specific legal advice from their situation and thank you very much i would yeah i would i wouldn’t die i would endorse both the legal advice but also thinking about the reality like these are unsolicited letters and some of the things they would say to you are actually like as claire says you would have these expensive lawyers basically introducing you completely and claiming that you’ve done all sorts of things that you have not done and it is it is quite remarkable when you’re involvement but i have seen it work you know firsthand i remember i had you know when i was working for a major broadcaster uh we went out to bosnia mid what was to be a 10 minute long film about environment of our about environmental corruption and we were there spent a lot of you know a lot of money on this a lot of work went into it and um which but one of the big law firms the first letter that went in and they just sunk their teeth in and people back down like people will back down it’s a real problem this is this is exactly the kind of thing that people will back down on and there’s a really interesting point to raise there i see by nick williams as well about privacy and data protection as the next frontier of slap actions we’ve i’ve already started to see this too i think what nick probably means by that and he might correct me if i’m wrong is that people are claiming that’s their personal data stuff that you would never think of as personal data a photograph of somebody things like that they’re claiming no that’s personal data and i i actually unfortunately can start to see that too where there’s an opportunity where you’re going that’s that’s my personal data so that becomes the figure you know so it’s less about that what you said about me is untrue but you’ve got my personal data there which in some respects actually was what um uh bendy steinmetz tried to do with global witness back in the day which was a very famous case and he tried to he tried to say that they had his personal data thankfully they won that case in the end but i wanted to bring then what what can we do about this you know this is a big problem we can see it’s a problem what can be done susan yeah um well i mean i think the first step is just acknowledging that it’s there um i mean you mentioned peter that um people and journalists talk about it amongst themselves um in-house media lawyers um who deal with these letters regularly i mean i think there has been sort of historically i think as rebecca alluded to as well i kind of fear of of speaking out about it um but actually sometimes when you do you can’t actually call people’s bluff and um and by kind of speaking out about it you’re also creating space for others to speak out about their experiences and for someone to recognize particularly you know someone who’s not as well resourced doesn’t have uh in housing council maybe isn’t in the uk would be more intimidated by receiving a legal letter from from here they can see oh others have received these letters too i can get legal advice i can you know not just automatically comply or or you know maybe have that initial response as you say these letters can make for very awful and scary reading even when you’re not the person who’s subject to them um so you know uh yeah i think that is a great first step um second of all i think when it comes specifically to the uk um we really need to look at the regulatory and uh legal systems that help enable this and the enablers within it um as i think we mentioned there’s been kind of already a lot of work in europe organizations that have come together to put forward a model eu directive on anti-slap obviously of course we would not be party to that um but there are other initiatives and through the uk anti-slap uh coalition that rebecca mentioned that um myself her and many other organizations including not just freedom of expression and media you know freedom organizations but anti-corruption transparency whistleblowing um you know writing organizations because you realize that this isn’t just about journalists you know the term itself is against any kind of public participation and people speaking up on issues and um so uh yeah i think we need to look at the laws um there is obviously libel laws that have been mentioned a lot but nix nix right they’re not the only ones and privacy and copyright um and maybe there needs to be something like an anti-slap law here that might encompass some of that um and then secondly you know the regulations so um you know we’re familiar with the concept of things wrongdoing only kind of blooming in darkness and unfortunately these law firms um are rarely covered i mean they then they’re part of a hidden process they send out the letters um and you know especially if it doesn’t go to court you don’t hear anything about them at all and they can write these letters and they can write them how they like um and so i think that does need to be more attention to what’s happening um and legal uh regulators looking into that and and pr firms and reputation companies that aren’t subject to any regulation um and we should be really kind of pushing particularly on the um anti-corruption side you know how how how are these being funded and particularly if it’s investigations into those who are accused of wrongdoing shouldn’t there be an extra kind of check there to to make sure that these services aren’t actually in fact being paid for by illicit gains uh which would go against you know the proceeds of crime act and things like that so it’s also about enforcement of things that are already there just as much as it is about um looking at you know new ways to regulate and legislate there’s an interesting question here from owen o’dell who i think is in kerry to look him on and he’s saying um you know that we’re gonna wait a long time for either the eu or the uk to bring in anti-slap legislation so is anyone trying to argue that the courts can and should develop non-statutory anti-slap injunctions has any thoughts on that rebecca is the court is is the courts where we might be going with this is that you know i’m always i’m as you know very interested in where to roll the courses and all these things so okay as a non-lawyer i won’t speculate on um aspects of you know court procedures um i know ian’s really an expert on this particularly in ireland in ireland it’s also an interesting case example because of the um the very high defamation awards there as well which we’ve seen really impact reporting on certain individuals that are certainly untouchable in ireland um and that’s in a country that has a very good press freedom record relatively speaking on our on our world press freedom index but what i will say is there are other things beyond legislation that we can certainly pursue and um like susan i’d say first and foremost to shed light on it um something that we’ve been working together along with other organizations to try to do for example is to get it taken up as an issue in the context of safety of journalists in this country which so far um has not been successful so um you know there’s this national committee for the safety of journalists that was launched by dcms last year some of us have been involved in that and we’ve kind of been raising it with them to even recognize it as that that sort of an issue um sometimes states don’t see a clear role for themselves in this beyond just that sort of regulatory environment but um they can certainly contribute towards um recognizing that it is a threat to safety to press freedom in other ways um and helping uh to to strengthen the the support that’s available there but i think there’s also some steps needed from the media itself and so i you know more often at rsf we’re focused on what policy makers can do but this is an issue where i think the industry does um have a role to play and not just in sort of speaking out about it and calling it out in in talking to others about what’s happening and maybe not just quietly complying but in supporting your own journalists even when they’re facing this because we’ve all worked with journalists who even if they’re established like with an established media outlet really still feel on their own sometimes in fighting these things um that to me is disappointing and i don’t want to be in a position to publicly name and chain there because i don’t think it’s helpful but i think it’s really distasteful when journalists are winning awards and you know part of that is these provocative things that they’re pursuing and the their outlets are also benefiting from it but then if there’s anything like this it’s sort of hands off you’re on your own that not only impacts that individual but sends a clear signal to others that like hey there are certain topics that are just not worth pursuing and you’re on your own if you do we have an interesting question here it’s a question i’ve been thinking about a lot especially we published a story about something similar today already you know what’s the value of investigating the reputation management companies themselves claire what do you think what’s the uh you mean what’s their value in what what’s doing journalism on the reputation management industry itself oh well i think that yes i think it’s a huge story and you know these firms and i like you know journalists are looking into it but right now um they they act with relative impunity and they’re smugly aware of how protected they are by all the conventions all the legal conventions that you know they have a right to represent their client and um and really not to sort of ask you many questions about the client they always act as if they’re defending someone you know on a criminal charge you know whereas in fact you know this is civil litigation uh where you know they know perfectly well they’re um you know they’re acting in the interest of some of the most disruptible people on the planet um you know and um you know and yet they they they you know utilize all these conventions that allow them to come after um someone who’s just trying to do the right thing in the public interest um you know they’re coming after journalists who have written you know restrained responsible articles i mean it’s so dangerous to write about someone rich anyway you know you really ha you start off by being extremely careful you know um and yet while the journalist is under you know an immense cosh these law companies you know act like yeah they act like highway men um without any fear of being caught um so so i think the first thing to do is to show them up for what they are and show them up for what they’re doing and it is a good story and what that’s why i’m sitting here today that’s why i’m available to talk about this issue because i i and so many others we need to call these guys out to say what they’re doing and to stand up to these bullies uh because that’s what they are they’re making and no one’s restraining them there’s no no no occasion to these lawyers sit down and think oh gosh you know could this look really bad for our firm um you know how do we better not take that million dollars from that nightclub um you know king um you know in in some dirty corner of the world um against who there are masses you know of damning evidence um you know they don’t hesitate there’s nothing for them to lose at the moment and so therefore yes you know we the abused media need to come out of the closet um and take this on i think yeah or in you know for the public i was really struggling we did that actually a few months ago in open democracy i wrote a piece about our own experiences and you know i thought long and hard before doing it but you know like actually a lot of people got in touch talking about their own experiences of this you know and like it is like one of those things it’s like as i say it’s almost like an america around it it’s a topic people don’t want to talk about but but actually you know once once once you start to break cover on us um i wonder like we’ve talked a lot about about the uk like is you know how unusual is the uk in this you know is there similar industries existing around the world or are we particularly uh blighted by this um sorry claire you can i’m happy to pass around the room well i think i think it’s part of a network of services that we in the uk are very efficient at providing um you know i cover corruption in the third world um you know how local uh power abusers steal from their own people they then turn to the brits um mainly uh we service them in so many ways we help them channel their money we advise them on how to invest their money we tell them how to hide their money in the offshore system and how to avoid tax um and we provide the pr services we provide the counter reputation services the attack services and above all you know the legal services that we’re talking about um and and one of the great strengths for a rich person dealing with a journalist anywhere in the world using british lawyers is we are world-class expensive so therefore you know you’re you’re quadrupling the expense for the person who doesn’t really have very much money by taking the whole action through the uk um you know so we’re you know we’re a concierge outfit for the super wealthy in many respects we’re also a standard setter for better or worse and that’s the thing and not just in this area but in our press freedom climate and our practices in other areas beyond this too so a lot of other countries specifically those with historical ties to britain look at what is done here and what we get away with here and that can be an excuse for even worse behaviors in many places yeah just to echo um what claire and rebecca have said when we started this project the unsafe screening project last year from policy center we decided to to do a survey amongst um investigations working specifically on financial crime and corruption and it was about all the kind of violations and threats they faced not just legal threats but um nevertheless legal threats came out as identified even by those who who are suffering all kinds of horrible violations legal threats was the thing that came out as the most challenging for them to be able to continue to do their work and the uk was the leading international source of those threats which is almost as high as those coming from europe and the u.s combined certainly the us also has you know reputation management you know laundering services but it’s already been mentioned the combination then with the uk’s legal system and the sort of lack of strong public interest defense it makes it yeah it’s it’s an unpleasant kind of cocktail unfortunately plus also then of course the facilitation services that claire was talking about so it really is a kind of mecca in a lot of ways uh for this and we have a question on in the q a from richard fowler asking can the uk public health you know has apathy been a bit shaken by the pandemic you know and you know is is you know is there is what can what can people do and i think i find this people you know it’s a very good question like what can ordinary people do to try and counter this i think there’s been a sort of you know journalists have been the bad people in the public mind for for a while um and i think there was one question about you know the big four or so institutions who run the media that the media has been abused ironically by the same sort of powerful forces um you know that we’re we’re dealing with really super rich people buying up uh newspapers and then using them as a weapon as a you know as a way of actually bringing down the public debate and disgracing journalism frankly in the process so we’ve had a period of disgraceful journalism that’s shocked rightly shocked the public and given us a very bad name which has made it hard for us to stand up and say actually you know the most of us are quite well intentioned most of us are honest most of us are actually you know doing a very necessary job in society and that the pendulum needs to come back a bit in the public mind and i think the only way we can do it is by speaking out and my huge thanks to people like rebecca and susan and their organizations for you know for for calling this out um and and working to to to to inform the public about the dire threat to freedom of the media rebecca i absolutely agree with clary i was going to say something similar about the public attitude towards media um is not helpful when we’ve got trends like scum media and you know you see the behaviors towards some members of the public for example trying to cover anti-lockdown protests and these sorts of things and these sentiments are being whipped up by some public officials as well and that has to be stated um that just increased this climate of risk for journalists as well um so you know something something along the lines of of countering that um that prevalence and sort of showing um what the impact is i think one thing that gets lost in many kind of cases of journalists that we’re defending whether it’s legal threats or other types of threats is that a lot of people lose sight of the fact that the ultimate impact is on the public it’s on the public’s right to know it’s not just about the rights of individual journalists it’s about all of us so every time somebody is targeted every time somebody is silenced and some topic becomes you know so risque and people become untouchable that means that all of us have less information about that and we’re less able to actually hold our own governments to account and so that’s it and it’s you know it’s very a very simple concept but one that i think people lose sight of it and you see this attitude sometimes that oh journalists this scum media get what they deserve not at all and then one other thing that i think can be helpful sometimes is just supporting individual journalists fights back i know people end up having to do crowdfunders and things like that to actually take these things to court and so few people are willing to really fight that um if you’re able to donate um obviously all of our organizations that fight this too or are charities and are glad to receive donations but it can be really worth as well like supporting individual crowdfunders we saw a recent case where actually the success of a fundraiser um seemed one of the crowdfunders in fact seems to have had an impact on uh the willingness of uh of the complainant to continue so that can also have a knock-on campaign effect as well as practical support to that journalist in their legal battle i guess we’re coming towards the end i’ll just we’ll go with one last question and just quickly and then we will wrap up i guess there’s an interesting kind of question here almost like almost like a thought for me and grant you know he’s asking is is it corporate um rather than personal reputation laundering as our you know as our what’s the corporate aspect is i think we often can think of it just as people you know you think of catherine belton’s been sued by a number of people but there’s a real corporate aspect to this too that i think also can really get hidden that it’s you know it’s not necessarily just a person who doesn’t want you to find out about the but there’s there can be a real corporate footprint to this too uh susan do you want to speak to that uh yeah i mean it certainly it can be both um and i think it’s slightly interesting with with corporations when you talk about libel laws because there is a certain level of um protection there in the fact that um if you’re if you’re an organization a company that’s uh decided to to sue for example a journalist you’d have to prove um that there was a financial harm to your organization in order for it to sort of to stand and to succeed uh potentially so um in a way there is a kind of little bit of a safety net there and we have seen some cases be withdrawn because ultimately um despite whoever bringing it um you know saying that they’ve been their companies been liberalled actually their company hasn’t suffered financially which is quite interesting in a way and you do sometimes see companies and their directors suing at the same time um and that can take place forward and when in the company couldn’t for example because of that um kind of caveat but um i i think i just wanted to speak a little bit to the point that sort of rebecca was making which is that you know we first of all be thinking about the impact on journalists but the the second impact of course is as us as a society and what happens when this information doesn’t get out there and some of the cases that we’ve also been looking at sort of historically and you think about harvey weinstein and you think about jimmy savile and you think about even you know when it came to sort of lance armstrong in his um drug scandal and cheating and how long all of those cases came um to come out and in a way um you know they were all subject to kind of legal threats and some some of it was tied with non-disclosure agreements but there was also a certain tide of public support and public opinion that changed and allowed for people to break their ndas for example um and uh come forward and i’d like to think that people coming out and speaking about this issue more uh will encourage others to do so it’s great that you had such a good response peter to your article on this topic from others um and so hopefully if journalists do speak out more and and other people who are affected by this issue um we might see that public tied of attention and support um it certainly would be much needed i think to push forward legislative and regulatory reform thank you very much susan i feel like we’re coming to the end now and it does feel like that’s a very very good point to end on i think it’s you know at least it’s a it’s a hopeful note and i i for one am always trying to look at the the optimistic side of it and see is there is there a space in which there can be a tide of opinion the camp this can be seen as something that like people don’t have to suffer the kind of experiences i’m going to catch on between the suffering now i think it’s really really really important and that you know it’s not just it’s in many ways to borrow a euphemism somewhere else it’s not a victimless crime this kind of libel tourism it actually really affects ordinary people in really profound and deeply dangerous and damaging ways and i just want to say thank you to everybody for joining our debate thanks to all of these fantastic panelists and thanks to the audience who’ve i’m delighted to see have joined us from around the world it’s really heartening to see so many people from all over the world and we have a weekly debate here on open democracy and you can check out our website um on social media for the details or go to opendemocracy.net and you can type find live discussions there and you can find all the details and i should also say open democracy relies on contributions to the nations to do the kind of journalism and time to to pay for the legal costs of trying to do journalism we do so if you want to see more of this public interest journalism please support open democracy and you can support us at support dot open democracy forward slash donation thank you all again for all of your help and for joining here and i will see you all next week
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Is the UK’s reputation management industry destroying journalism? | openDemocracy Live

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