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    Platform - A right to reply

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    150/Robert Henderson

    DATELINE: 25/2/06

    A statutory right of reply (RoR) is a thing of journalistic nightmares. That tells you it is the best remedy for those who cannot afford to sue for libel. But the media is looking a gift horse in the mouth for a RoR would provide the strongest guard against any government desire to formally regulate newspapers and to further interfere with broadcasters, because an effective cheap means of rapid redress available to everyone, including politicians incidentally, capsizes the prime argument for state regulation. A RoR is the perfect non-political remedy for media abuse because it is a self-sustaining and self-regulating mechanism.

    Costs could easily be kept low. First, by making libel the only reason for refusing a RoR and then only for that part of a proposed reply which was libellous. Second, by empowering Small Claims Courts to decide whether a claimed libel exists and, if the court does not agree that it does, to order the newspaper or broadcaster to publish the disputed reply. There should be no higher court appeal against the Small Claims Court's decision unless the appellant pays both sides' costs. This would allow justice while preventing those seeking a RoR from being intimidated out of their right by the threat of heavy costs.

     

    How would it work?

    The qualification for a RoR would be simple and objective: a media outlet has printed or broadcast material about an individual.

    In the case of newspapers I would give a respondent 300 words as an automatic right and another 500 words for every 1000 words published about him or her over 1500 words. The respondent's reply should be printed on the same page as the story to which they are responding. If the newspaper responds to a reply then the person responded to would get another RoR.

    Broadcasting is more problematic but a written reply by the person criticised could be read out on air. Where the person has the confidence to speak for themselves, they should be allowed to broadcast their reply.

     

    Practical fears

    The media will say that this is completely impractical, that their papers and broadcasts would be full of nothing but replies. In fact, the general experience of the introduction of new opportunities offered to the public is that there is an initial burst of activity which soon settles down to a hard core of those willing to make the effort. If the introduction of a right to reply proved the sociological odd man out and the media was overwhelmed, the system could be reviewed.

    A narrow RoR would be worthless. A RoR should not be limited to inaccuracy. There is often no easy way of proving the truth or otherwise of ostensible "facts". If a RoR was restricted to inaccuracy, the media would assuredly undermine it by arguing interminably.

    Then there is opinion. This is often more damaging than inaccuracy. Moreover, there is no clear distinction between fact and opinion. Suppose I write of an actress that "she is a whore"that is a statement of fact which, in principle, can be tested objectively. But what if I write "she has the morals of a whore"? Is that fact or opinion?

     

    The present non-legal remedies

    These are both cumbersome and unfair. For example, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) is comprised entirely of people drawn from the media or from those associated in some way with the media, and the organisation is funded by the press. Unsurprisingly, a non-celebrity complainant to the PCC rarely succeeds.

    But this misses a larger point. No matter how formally honest any media regulating body was, it could no more serve the public generally than the legal profession can serve the general public in actions for libel where there is no legal aid.

    The numbers of complaints actually considered formally by the PCC and the broadcasting authorities is minute, running into a few hundred a year — most complaints never get a full hearing or investigation. If the public began to use these bodies enthusiastically they would be overwhelmed.

     

    The effect on the media

    Faced with an immediate published response to any inaccuracy or abusive opinion and the possibility of having to submit themselves to public examination in a small claims court, journalists and broadcasters would cease to be cavalier about what they write.

    The present relationship between the media and anyone they choose to criticise is analogous to someone who binds a man and then punches him. It is not a contest but an act of cowardice.



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    Last modified: Wednesday, July 1, 2009


    Previous right of reply stories


    Right of Reply in Europe
    Right of Reply and Press Standards Bill
    Second reading for Right of Reply
    WREKIN MP LAUNCHES PRESS RIGHT OF PEPLY BILL
    Right of Reply Bill published
  • Notices

    Events & Announcements

    Reporting NHS privatisation


    Since 1948, the NHS has been publically funded, and free to all at the point of need, however, it's now undergoing massive reforms and campaigners say that it's being broken up, privatised and changed beyond recognition. Services will suffer and the NHS as we know it will be no more. Despite this, the reporting of the decimation of the NHS has been sketchy, and although local papers and radio have produced some compelling stories, national coverage has been minimal in detailing these complex issues.
    Keep Our NHS Public is a campaign aimed at raising public awareness and Nick Jones speaks to John Lister, Jill George, Roger Gartland and Jean Smith about their lobbying efforts.
    » Read on


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    DATELINE: 2/5/14

    We need policies to ensure media plurality in the UK and Europe. You can take one simple step to help us to get that. Sign up to the European Initiative for Media Pluralism and spread the word.


    DOWNLOAD FREEPRESS NOW

    DATELINE: 26/3/10
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Sign up for a better media


DATELINE: 2/5/14

We need policies to ensure media plurality in the UK and Europe. You can take one simple step to help us to get that. Sign up to the European Initiative for Media Pluralism and spread the word.


DOWNLOAD FREEPRESS NOW

DATELINE: 26/3/10
Download Freepress in PDF, ePub or mobi format. Issues 197,198 and 199 are now available in PDF format only.
» Read on
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DATELINE: 26/3/10
Papers from the Media for All Conference


MEDIA MANIFESTO

DATELINE: 26/3/10
The media’s job is to inform and entertain us but we rely on them too to tell us what our rulers and representatives are up to. In the run-up to the Iraq war the government used spin and disinformation in the media to create panic and mislead people. The truth is coming out now, but we need stronger, more independent media to be able to scrutinise governments and make informed choices.
» Read on