Why is the UK media scared to name names?

British media has hardly spoken of the identities of two people at the center of British politics who allegedly had an affair.

June 19, 2013 21:55
2 minute read.
London Mayor Boris Johnson.

London Mayor Boris Johnson 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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While the rest of the world media, not to mention the Internet, is awash with rumours of the identities of two people at the center of British politics who allegedly had an affair, the British media itself, even its famously fearless tabloids, has hardly spoken of the matter.

So while Israeli radio listeners hear speculation about London Mayor Boris Johnson and the prime minister’s wife, Samantha Cameron, people in London are denied that pleasure. Apart from the fact that these rumours almost certainly have no basis, it seems odd that the British media seems to have been stricken dumb. What is muzzling the British media? It is possible someone might have obtained a super-injunction: a court order forbidding not just mention of the lovers’ names but even mention of the order itself. But super-injunctions are very hard to obtain and usually not available in cases like this where there is apparent real public interest. Also, finding a creative way to get round a super-injunction is a new sport at which British journalists excel.

A further reason for the silence could be the new press regulation scheme which the UK parliament approved in April 2013.

Following the revelation that journalists employed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation had hacked celebrities’ mobile telephones, bribed police and generally gone out of control, the British government set up an inquiry under Lord Justice Leveson.

This resulted in the decision to establish a new body to control press regulation.

The new regulatory regime will replace the toothless Press Complaints Commission (PCC) which many view as being in the pocket of the very journalists it is supposed to regulate. My firm recently successfully sued the PCC for failing to reprimand The Guardian newspaper which insisted that Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem, was the capital of Israel. The tendency of the PCC to protect journalists, even when they are clearly wrong, has convinced the public that a stronger regulator is needed.

There is much concern as to whether it is consistent with democracy to have parliament controlling the press. This concern is misplaced. Parliament already makes laws which make bribing policemen, hacking phones and defaming people illegal.

These are the true controls over the press. Of much greater concern should be the bizarre decision to exempt the BBC from control by the new regulator. Why the world’s most powerful media organization, which is consistently shown to breach its own impartiality obligations, should be above the law, remains a quintessentially British mystery.

Since the new regulator is not yet in place, it is probably not the reason the British media is so coy. Rather the likely reason is fear of defamation suits. Britain has long been seen as “pro claimant” for defamation claims. In the US by comparison, a public figure has close to no protection against defamation. The Defamation Act, passed in April 2013, makes UK law slightly less claimant friendly. But the burden of proof is still on the newspaper to show that what it prints is true.

That is why British newspapers are very reluctant to print anything which is not supported by good evidence and is probably the reason why Boris Johnson and Samantha Cameron don’t appear entwined in the pages of the British press.

Trevor Asserson is the founding partner of Asserson Law Offices, Israel’s largest English law firm, based in Tel Aviv, and is widely recognized as one of the UK’s leading litigation solicitors. Shimon Goldwater is a lawyer with the firm.

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