Sued and spied on

  • 22 Nov 2021

Tim Dawson reports on a webinar which examined the threats to investigative journalists and writers telling their stories and exposing wrongdoing.

Ask John Sweeney about the devices of the rich and thin skinned to thwart investigative journalists, and it is hard to shut him up. The former Observer and Panorama reporter knows them all. He’s been spied on, sued in multiple jurisdictions, physically threatened, and faced falsified personal accusations – and that is just by Sir David Barclay.

After decades of attempts to gag him, however, Sweeney describes the environment for investigation as deteriorating. “It is worse today than it has ever been”, he says. “Threats online are way more intense, Britain’s courts are a favoured destination to attack journalists, and politicians have failed pathetically to do anything.”

Carole Cadwalladr – Pulitzer Prize finalist – agrees.

 “The way journalists are targeted online is not understood by news organisations. Investigative journalists are the first to be attacked and silenced… it will be fashion and interiors writers next.”

Both were speaking at a webinar, convened by The Media Society to consider the threats to investigative journalism. Gill Phillips, director of legal services at The Guardian, James Ball, global editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and Michelle Stanistreet joined them.

It was the NUJ’s survey of the industry that lifted the lid on the scale of the threats faced by journalists. Michelle described a reporter forced to flee her home, a photographer whose house was attacked, death threats issued to the entire staff of a newspaper in Northern Ireland, and threats from sovereign states intent on closing down London-based media.

“These start as personal messages but are also aimed at chilling the wider journalistic community,” she said.

Legal challenges to journalism have evolved significantly in recent years, said Gill Phillips. “Privacy and data protection are now advanced as the main routes for complaint, with deformation relegated to the third or fourth line of attack”.

Asked what improve the situation, the panel had some novel ideas.  Gill Phillips called for anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) laws to stop journalists being threatened by expensive lawsuits. She described legislation being considered in Europe and already enacted in Canada and South Africa. It allows vexatious legal challenges intended to frustrate journalists to be thrown out at an early stage. The NUJ has signed a letter in support of journalist and author Catherine Belton. She is fighting defamation lawsuits, including from Russian businessman Roman Abramovich and the Russian state energy company Rosneft in relation to her book Putin’s People.

James Ball suggested that simple changes to the journalistic exemptions to data protections laws would save many journalists from “immensely silly” challenges.

Dealing with online harassment is arguably the most pressing issue, however.

“These new technologies are created by white men in San Francisco who are never on the end of the harms they cause,” said Carole Cadwalladr.

She described social media “swarms”, co-ordinated via messaging groups and often legitimised by other journalists. “I don’t know of any news organisation that is good at dealing with this, and young women entering journalism have no idea of the bear pit they are joining”.

Michelle castigated employers for their response:

“It is a cultural issue that has been normalised – no one should have to accept harassment as a part of their work.”

Closing the webinar, she said that the NUJ would disrupt this prevailing culture so that journalists know they can complain and be taken seriously. She also warned politicians against “using language that treats journalists as enemies of the people”. She committed the union to calling out what she described as an unspoken epidemic.

Read the rest of NUJ Branch

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