On Thursday 4 February 2010 Gray’s Inn organised a forum under the title “Gagging the Press: Is the Public Bound to Suffer?” The speakers were Sir Ken Macdonald, Director of Public Prosecutions 2003-2008; Juliet Herd, international editor, Hello! magazine; Eric Barendt, Goodman professor of media law at University College, London; Bénédicte Paviot, UK correspondent of France 24; Max Mosley, former director of the FIA; Alan Rusbridger, editor-in-chief of Guardian News and Media; and Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors.

The debate was interesting with a wide variety of views expressed and some interesting contributions from the floor – particularly a comment from the well known publicist Max Clifford about “kiss and tells” to the effect that 90% of them had no public interest at all.  A podcast of the debate can be found on the “Guardian” website  here. Overall, balancing and interesting views were expressed about the media – from Max Mosley’s campaigning plea for a prior notification requirement and Eric Barendt’s balanced summary of the current state of the law to the self confessed “fundamentalism” of Sir Ken Macdonald and the old fashioned “trust the media” view of Bob Satchwell

What interests us is the way in which the national media reported the event.  The largest print media piece was in the “Telegraph”, it had the headline “Sir Ken Macdonald: former DPP warns British libel laws are suppressing free speech”.   Well yes, that was one of the things he said but, overall, his was a minority view – and he cannot sensibly be said to be an expert in the field.   Max Mosley was mentioned in passing and none of the other participants at all.  Anyone reading the “Telegraph” piece would assume that the evening was a “pro-media, anti-libel” rally.  It is, of course, in the commercial interest of media to report it that way but it is hardly “responsible” or “balanced”.  The Guardian had a short report in its print edition under the headline “PCC is ‘farcical” says ex-director of public prosecutions”.  Well yes, he did say that as well but it was not the main theme of the forum.  More of the participants are mentioned and quoted but once again, the balance of the discussion was not conveyed.

The “Times”, which despite having the most experienced legal correspondence in the national press – Frances Gibb – has a marked reluctance to run legal stories in the print editions.   Perhaps it thinks that it has lost the liberal lawyers to the “Guardian” and the commercial ones to the “FT”.   Frances Gibb’s report of the event was relegated to the Times legal blog “Law Central” – again headlining Sir Ken Macdonald with “Ex DPP says scrap “farcical” press watchdog”.  At least she mentioned the other participants in the debate and quoted Max Mosley’s comment that the PCC “was like putting the “mafia in charge of the local police station.”

Overall, the highest marks for balance go to Frances Gibb – 6/10 and the lowest to the “Telegraph” – 1/10.