A salutary tale about the use and abuse of British laws by Channel 4’s Jon Snow:
The scandal of Britain’s libel laws and their facility for libel tourism is well known. So too is our cavalier attitude to freedom of speech. But the idea that a country with one of the worst records for press freedom and human rights could use UK broadcast regulations to challenge legitimate reporting of allegations of cold-blooded killings in a brutal civil war surely takes the UK to a new place.
Whatever private individuals and corporations may be able to do, our legal system does at least prevent states, governments and political parties from suing for defamation in our courts. I and my colleagues at Channel 4 News are now emerging from a storm that saw Sri Lanka bypass our libel laws and attempt to use Ofcom, the broadcast regulator, to do what the law would not allow – silence our journalism. Ofcom’s job is to protect “people who watch television and listen to radio from harmful or offensive material” and to further the interests of UK citizens in respect of communication matters. It does this well. Ofcom’s job is not to protect governments or organisations from criticisms or to further their political or commercial interests.
Last year we broadcast a video showing nine bound and naked men, two of whom were shot, on camera, by soldiers who appeared to be wearing Sri Lankan army uniform. On the night in question I made it clear that while we couldn’t authenticate this video, sent to us by a group called Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, it raised matters of such importance that further investigation was warranted. The Sri Lankan high commission immediately denied the atrocities that the video appeared to show.
Two weeks later, at a news conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka said “independent” analysis had declared the video a “fake”. It mounted a high-profile global campaign to discredit the report, protesting outside Channel 4’s London headquarters. The Sri Lankan government opened up a second front in the UK, filing a series of complaints with Ofcom – one for accuracy and impartiality, one for fairness and privacy. What had begun as a media campaign to try to destroy the credibility of our news report had become a private battle using the UK’s broadcast regulator. It was a battle in which they were initially allowed to hide anonymously behind the confidential nature of the procedures.
Battle was spared by the findings of a UN committee which concluded that the tape did appear authentic, and dismissed Sri Lanka’s analysis. Strangely, on the eve of the UN report’s publication the government of Sri Lanka dropped its Ofcom complaints.
The Sri Lankan video affair has revealed how Ofcom procedures are potentially open to abuse that threatens to curb not only investigative reporting, but coverage of countries who would rather hide from public scrutiny. Ofcom has come of age in my reporting lifetime and I regard it as a regulatory success. But we need to look to the very real risk of governments hijacking the regulatory process for their own political ends.
In this case, Ofcom was placed at the centre of an international row over Sri Lanka’s human rights record, for decisions which could have had a major bearing on the country’s attempts to defend its reputation. Before Sri Lanka’s complaints were dropped, we were prepared to put these arguments in front of a court. We felt a clear ruling that denied countries access to Ofcom’s complaints procedures would be beneficial not just to political debate in the UK, but would also help the regulator to avoid being drawn into major international crises.
In the absence of a legal ruling, only parliament can change the basis on which complaints can be brought. Ofcom needs to ensure that Sri Lanka is the last country to be allowed to attempt to pervert the regulator’s domestic complaints procedure for its own needs.