Freedom fighter: The Guardian's Gill Phillips
6 January 2014 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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Since Gill Phillips joined The Guardian, press freedom has been rocked by phone-hacking, WikiLeaks and Snowden. But at least she’s not in the City poring over the minutiae of commercial documents
“I have always been a Guardian reader,” says Gill Phillips. “When I started at Clifford Chance, I would come up in the lift in the morning and all the men would have The Telegraph or The Times with them and I would have The Guardian. I always felt like I had to hide it.”
Phillips does not have to hide her allegiance now. Since moving to the paper from The Times in 2009 as director of editorial legal services, she has advised on one high profile story after another.
“Since I’ve arrived, it seems to have been non-stop,” she confirms. “We had Trafigura, phonehacking, WikiLeaks, Leveson, Snowden – it just hasn’t stopped.”
She arrived in the media world after leaving the litigation department of Clifford Chance, then legacy firm Coward Chance, in 1987.
“I felt like a fish out of water in the City environment,” she admits. “I really didn’t get off on enormously expensive commercial litigation around bits of banking. You would argue over minute interpretations of one line in a 70-page document. And you would just go: ‘Urgh’.”
This, coupled with an aversion to wearing a suit, meant that when she happened across an advert for a BBC litigator at three years PQE, she had no difficulty leaving the City behind.
Phillips now sits in a glass office surrounded by news desks. Dressed in flat boots and casual trousers, and surrounded by racks of papers and mocked-up covers of the publications she has worked on, it is difficult to imagine her thriving as a City slicker.
In keeping with the Guardian-reader stereotype, she even cycles the 50-minute journey to the paper’s King’s Cross offices from her home in Lewisham.
“When you start out in the City you are at the bottom of a big team,” she remembers. “Not that you want to be running litigation, but you are the running around-er photocopy-er, putting-things-in-bundles-er. It might have changed since then, but at that time your involvement in the process was remote.”
She joined the BBC just after it had lost a high-profile litigation case concerning the Panorama episode ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendencies’, which alleged several Conservative MPs had links with far-right political organisations. Two of the named MPs sued and won.
“Although I took a pay cut, I knew really early on that it was better for me,” Phillips says. She spent a happy decade at the Beeb before moving to the now-defunct News of the World (NoW).
Although she says that, “every in-house media lawyer should do a stint on a tabloid”, she stayed just 18 months. “In a way, [a tabloid] is the most challenging legally,” she adds. “There are not as many words so you can’t insert as many qualifications as a broadsheet can. They are shorter and snappier and they want to be more challenging.
“It’s great but I just couldn’t engage with the tabloid mentality. Some of it just felt a bit trivial to me. I don’t know whether that is because I am a bit of a snob or what. I think there is a particular sort of person who settles into tabloids, and that just wasn’t me.”
After lecturing at the College of Law for two years, she moved to The Times in 2000, before moving to The Guardian nine years later.
She joined in May 2009, one month before Guardian journalist Nick Davies alleged that the NoW phone-hacking was not limited to the royal household and that hacking activities were known about by many staff members, including then-editor Andy Coulson.
Phillips had a potentially uncomfortable task in front of her, knowing some of the people alleged to have been involved, although she had left the paper before the hacking took place.
“On one level it is just another piece of copy that you have to look at,” she surmises. “For me, the main thing was the nuanced difference between phone-hacking and the Steve Whittamore stuff.”
The Guardian, along with other papers, had paid private investigator Whittamore for information on figures in the public eye. His work was discovered by the Information Commissioner’s Office and revealed in the press.
“There were differences in terms of what was being done and what was in the public interest,” Phillips continues. “When I started doing media litigation it was primarily civil litigation – civil cases brought by private individuals. Now, there is much more crime around. The criminal law has encroached more and more into free speech.”
During her career Phillips has witnessed the rise of the internet and social networking sites and seen first-hand how technology has transformed the media and how media law is struggling to keep up.
“When you are a mainstream news organisation, you do obey the law,” she states. “If you are given a court order telling you not to do something, you obey it.
“That can put you at odds with social media, where people do not feel restrained in the same way, although that gap is narrowing as people realise the consequences.”
One of the principal criticisms of the Leveson inquiry into media ethics and governance was that Lord Justice Leveson did not tackle a legal framework for the technological changes wrought upon the media.
Phillips states: “Leveson didn’t really try to deal with the internet and the Royal Charter just seems bonkers to me. Leveson didn’t suggest it, so you can’t blame him for it. I criticise him because his solution was a bit of everything – self-regulation, independent but underpinned by statute. It just seems to be giving something to each camp and has led to everyone still grasping at straws. It has gone down a route that nobody predicted.”
Despite having to guide The Guardian through the both the Royal Charter and the newly-created Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), both consequences of Leveson, Phillips is optimistic about the relationship between government and the media.
“There have always been attempts by the state to control the press,” she says. “And that is how it should be. The fact that the state doesn’t like the press seems to me to show a healthy democracy.
“I went to Hong Kong a month ago to do a conference. And there were journalists there from Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia, who still have criminal libel. Any sort of political dissent, you get done for criminal libel and go to prison. That’s when you realise what press freedom is about.”
It is questionable whether the new press regulation could ever morph into state-imposed sanctions on reporting, but the Government’s displeasure over press coverage of Edward Snowden’s National Security Agency (NSA) revelations has been illuminating.
On 15 November 2013, moved by the summoning of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger to appear before a parliamentary committee, The New York Times, a co-publisher of Snowden’s NSA leaks, published an article under the headline ‘British Press Freedom under Threat’.
It reads: “Britain has a long tradition of a free, inquisitive press. That freedom, so essential to democratic accountability, is being challenged by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of prime minister David Cameron.
“In a free society, the price for printing uncomfortable truths should not be parliamentary and criminal inquisition.”
Phillips refuses to be drawn into discussion about NSA leaks, saying that the topic is too legally sensitive to comment on. She herself was in Australia when she first learned of the leaks, helping to establish The Guardian’s Australia outpost.
The paper’s global reach mirrors the globalisation of the media. Phillips’ work on WikiLeaks, she says, taught her the value of cross-jurisdictional, collaborative reporting.
“From the legal perspective, if one country is fine to release the story and we are not okay with it here for whatever legal reason, it means you can still get a story out. People may object to that but that’s the global world that we operate in.”
During the WikiLeaks revelations, The Guardian collaborated with The New York Times, El Pais, Le Monde and Der Spiegel.
“The UK is one of the most restrictive publication arenas, while America is the other extreme,” Phillips explains. “The reason is the First Amendment. If we look at Europe, it is Article 10, and it is qualified. Big difference.
“It is not just us who make these [jurisdictional] calculations,” she continues. “The big global internet players know how it works. Julian Assange uses it and Snowden appears to be using it as he is giving people in different jurisdictions different things.”
The Guardian’s publication of WikiLeaks data started with stories focusing on Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. This was a strategic move by the paper. It started running UK-based stories concerning UK-based individuals further down the line.
“Once people understood what WikiLeaks was we could do UK stories,” Phillips says. “Because WikiLeaks is not evidence. The cables are not evidence – you could not rely on them being the answer in a defamation case. You still have to put allegations to people and then take decisions.”
The collaboration between a traditional news outlet and an organisation such as WikiLeaks has not been painless for either party.
In August 2011, WikiLeaks posted via Twitter that it had launched defamation proceedings against The Guardian, alleging that its security had been breached due to revelations by a Guardian journalist.
Phillips says WikiLeaks never launched formal proceedings. “It was a tit for tat thing,” she says. “From memory, Julian Assange threatened defamation proceedings but it never got beyond threats.
“There were fallings out – people’s desires and needs, what they expect and want. A newspaper sees itself as having a particular role but it also sees itself as not engaging in some things, whereas an organisation like WikiLeaks might feel it does have an obligation.”
Phillips finds this ever-present threat of legal action from any corner of the globe difficult.
“We publish everywhere and the legal test is that if you are downloadable somewhere then that is akin to publishing in that country,” she says. “We have been threatened with action in Pakistan and Zimbabwe. We have been sued in France, Greece, Italy – you cannot possibly know all of the laws in all of those countries. You have to take informed judgements and get external legal advice.”
The Guardian’s print circulation averages just over 200,000 copies a day, a decline of 13 per cent over the past year. But its global monthly readership now numbers 36 million, with less than a third of those users based in the UK. The news cycle is now 24-hours to cater for this worldwide audience.
“Once upon a time, you knew you would publish at 6pm or 7pm and you had a deadline,” Phillips remembers. “Now there are none of those constraints, no taking it slowly – everybody wants to be out there first.
Gill Phillips, The Guardian
1977-81: MA (Cantab), Selwyn College, Cambridge
1981-82: LPC, College of Law
1982-84: Trainee, Coward Chance
1984-87: Litigation associate, Clifford Chance
1987-97: In-house solicitor, BBC
1997-98: In-house solicitor, News Group Newspapers
1998-2000: Lecturer, CoL
2000-09: Head of litigation, Times Newspapers
2009-present: Director of editorial legal services, Guardian News & Media
In the thick of it
Major Guardian stories published during Phillips’ employment
NoW phone hacking
In July 2009, Guardian journalist Nick Davies revealed the widespread nature of phone-hacking at the News of the World. It led to the closure of the paper and the trial of several of its senior editors.
Carter-Ruck obtained a super-injunction on behalf of Trafigura to prevent disclosures about toxic oil waste it arranged to be dumped in West Africa in 2006, making thousands of people ill. On 13 October 2009, The Guardian reported that it could not report the full story and within hours Twitter users picked it up, naming the corporation online and leading to the injunction being overturned on the same day.
In November 2010, leaks website WikiLeaks co-ordinated the global publication of the WikiLeaks cables, revealing sensitive information about multiple states, militaries and individuals.
In May this year, The Guardian published revelations that the National Security Agency and Prism had been monitoring private individuals’ communications.