Among all the postmortems that will inevitably follow the dramatic implosion of the global financial system, there will doubtless be one on how it was covered in the press. Was there sufficient information in the public domain about the dangers of financial derivatives and subprime mortgages? Did news organizations, facing their own crises of liquidity, have sufficient resources to monitor and analyze the available data? In view of the intricate financial engineering involved, did newsrooms employ journalists with the expertise to understand and explain what was going on? Did the ones who could comprehend it project the issue powerfully, repeatedly, and noisily enough? Did anyone pay attention?
These and related questions touch on the essence of the relationship between governors and governed. Some of the most critical developments concerning economics, security, the environment, and social policy are immensely complex and worthy of careful explanation. But they do not necessarily sell newspapers. News organizations in the Western world, struggling with declining audiences and revenue, are shedding journalists, closing down foreign operations, and cutting costs. But they are also increasingly inhibited by efforts—of government officials and of private corporations—to prevent them from protecting sources or from carrying out difficult investigations. Many minds are rightly focused on the regulatory, economic, technological, and legal issues that news organizations committed to serious journalism should be addressing. A starting point would be to reform one of the potential obstacles to their doing so—the British laws of libel. Do not be lulled into a false security by the word “British”: in the Internet age the British laws can bite you, no matter where you live.
As editor of The Guardian, I have been at the thick end of these laws more than is strictly good for anyone. The paper’s most recent serious brush with the British defamation laws came on April 4, 2008, when it was sued for libel by Tesco, one of the largest public companies in Britain and the fourth-largest retailer in the world. According to its latest accounts, the company has a gross income of over $85 billion (£50 billion), with profits before tax of nearly $5 billion. Its share of the UK grocery market is around 30 percent, and the company is now expanding globally, especially in the Far East and, more recently, in the US with its Fresh & Easy chain. In Britain Tesco occupies a position similar to that occupied by Wal-Mart in America. It is, by any measure, a giant international corporation—successful and controversial in equal measure.
Never in recent history had The Guardian faced a libel suit from a major corporation, let alone in the manner in which Tesco chose to fight—effectively four actions in one: two for libel and two for malicious falsehood, directed both against the newspaper and against the editor personally. The claim of malicious falsehood effectively stated that we had deliberately printed a story we knew to be untrue—or, as one letter from Tesco’s lawyers charmingly put it …