The Guardian legal chief: Keeping guard
20 January 2014 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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Guardian legal chief Gill Phillips balances protecting the newspaper from legal action across the globe with finding ways to get stories such as WikiLeaks out to the public
“I have always been a Guardian reader,” says Gill Phillips, the paper’s director of editorial legal services. “When I started at Clifford Chance, I’d come up in the lift in the morning and all the men would have The Telegraph or The Times with them and I’d 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, she has advised on one high-profile
story after another.
“Since I’ve arrived, it seems to have been non-stop,” she confirms. “We’ve had Trafigura, phonehacking, WikiLeaks, Leveson, Snowden – it just hasn’t stopped.”
Phillips arrived in the media world after leaving the litigation department of Clifford Chance, then known as 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 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.
“I think there is a particular sort of person who settles into tabloids, and that just wasn’t me,” she says. “In a way, [a tabloid] is the most challenging legally. There’s not as much room for words so you can’t insert as many qualifications as you can with a broadsheet. Tabloids are shorter and snappier and they want to be more challenging.”
Now, despite having to guide The Guardian through the landscape created by both the Royal Charter and the newly created Independent Press Standards Organisation, 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. If you write 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.”
Phillips refuses to be drawn into discussion about The Guardian’s recent slew of stories on the US National Security Agency, saying that the topic is too legally sensitive to comment on. She herself was in Australia, helping to establish The Guardian’s Australia outpost, when she first learned of the leaks.
The paper’s global reach mirrors the globalisation of the media. Phillips says her work on WikiLeaks 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 the US 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 [American computer specialist Edward] 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,” says Phillips. “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.”
Phillips finds the ever-present threat of legal action from any corner of the globe the most difficult aspect of her work.
“We publish everywhere and the legal test is that if you are downloadable somewhere then that is akin to publishing in that country. You cannot possibly know all of the laws in all of those countries. You have to take informed judgements and get external legal advice.”
Less than a third of the paper’s global monthly readership of 36 million is based in the UK. Its 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 is none of those constraints, no taking it slowly – everybody wants to be out there first.”
Gill Phillips, The Guardian
Position: Director of editorial legal services
Reporting to: Editor in chief, Alan Rusbridger
Legal capacity: Four (editorial only, not commercial)
Total number of staff: 1,700 globally
Prash Naik, controller of legal and compliance, Channel 4
Channel 4’s investigative journalism is the most challenging and demanding of our work. Our flagship current affairs series Dispatches produces a significant amount of our work is involved in getting these programmes to air and defending them after broadcast.
One of our most recent high-profile investigations was a collaboration with The Guardian – Dispatches: The Police’s Dirty Secret. It featured the former undercover police officer and whistleblower Peter Francis and his work for the now disbanded Special Demonstration Unit. In the programme he alleged that the unit was tasked with gathering information to undermine the Stephen Lawrence campaign which was set up to bring Lawrence’s murderers to justice. His allegations range from the unit using the identities of dead children, to officers engaged in sexual relationships with activists.
We are now involved in a threat by East Midlands Police which wants our producers to hand over all our journalistic material concerning those revelations. It is seeking a production order against the producers ITN, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The threat of an order is framed around potential offences under the Official Secrets Act and misconduct in public office by Francis. On the face of it seems to be a rather heavy-handed attempt to shoot the messenger.
Both Channel 4 and ITN consider the protection of our whistleblowers and sources to be sacrosanct and we robustly defend all legal challenges given the fundamental role that such individuals play in our public interest journalism.