Hiding the truth is not media’s job

To listen to former Schillings partner Gideon Benaim, you might be forgiven for thinking that every member of the media is enrolled among the forces of Lucifer.

Catrin Griffiths

Benaim – a former winner of Partner of the Year at The Lawyer Awards – is a ferocious litigator, even though his Ryan Giggs injunction eventually failed after a combination of social media and the Sunday Herald forced the story out into the open.

But while you’d expect a claimant lawyer to have a jaundiced view of the media, it was journalists, rather than the authorities, who exposed its worst practices. The Metropolitan Police – deeply implicated in dirty tabloid practices – failed to act.

With the Leveson report due, the refusal of the British press to run the Kate shots was not surprising. However, in the long run, the argument around press regulation may be a sideshow; The Sun’s decision to re-enact the Harry photographs was a risible response to the fact that the originals had gone viral. The tabloids – the traditional targets of legal ire – are slowly dying. Even at the top end, news-led print journalism is ceasing to be; to borrow a phrase from The Economist, print is now all about a lean-back read. One reason why The Lawyer switched to our new, well-received design was that news in print simply doesn’t fit modern reading habits. But the tabloids, reliant on print delivery of sensational headlines, don’t have room for manoeuvre when they’re up against guerilla celeb websites.

And libel lawyers, less focused on the one-off headline, are becoming reputation consultants across the piece. Benaim is aiming to do this at Michael Simkins, just as his former firm Schillings has been doing. Schillings’ website argues that corporate reputation protection extends to “salacious reporting of impropriety by a senior employee or the scale of remuneration”. Call me naïve, but I’d have thought sexual harassment or outrageous bonuses, say, were legitimate subjects to cover.

Most of us journalists outside of the glossies see our role as holding organisations to account, however imperfectly we actually do so. In these over‑PR’d times, though, some businesses feel that the reporter’s role is somehow to manage their reputations. It’s a mismatch of expectations, let’s say (newsroom parlance would be a little more Anglo-Saxon). It’s not the lawyers or the journalists who have the upper hand in this reconfigured media world; it’s the spin doctors.