The broadcasting world has had a traumatic start to the year. The Hutton Report cast a forensic and unforgiving glare over the inner workings of one of the most hallowed of UK institutions, the BBC, finding it wanting on a number of levels. For all the subsequent backlash and growing consensus that Lord Hutton evinced more than a passing unfamiliarity with the way the media goes about its business, broadcasters collectively have had to sit up and take stock. Would the other networks have been found wanting had they been subjected to Hutton’s steely gaze?
The answer, so far as Five is concerned, is ‘no’, according to Paul Chinnery, its head of legal and compliance. “A commercial broadcaster, subject to an external regulator such as Ofcom, would have got to the bottom of things much more quickly,” says Chinnery, a calm and eloquent man who joined Channel 5, as it then was, in time for its launch in 1997. “External regulation forces a much earlier examination of a situation analogous to the BBC’s, and I don’t think a commercial broadcaster would have looked for trench warfare so quickly. The BBC’s size and structure didn’t help it. Here, the chief executive would have got involved from the outset.”
But if Chinnery doubts whether Five would have become embroiled in so dramatic a battle as the BBC and the Government, he shares the corporation’s concerns over the Hutton Report. “Hutton took a particularly draconian line on certain issues, and while the report may not have had legal status, given the way the original dispute between the Government and the BBC escalated, and the fact that it was played out in the public domain, there’s a sense in which its findings have been set in stone,” says Chinnery, who cautions that, although the report should not be taken as heralding the end of investigative journalism, it comes at a time when the media and its ability to work free of restrictions is under increasing threat.
“Journalists are being expected – in the light of Hutton and the Reynolds case [which outlined the limits of the ‘qualified privilege’ defence to a claim for defamation] – to reach standards only really achievable with 20-20 hindsight. The effect can be to neuter or even gag some stories,” argues Chinnery. He adds that the climate is being further influenced by an especially proactive Attorney-General, who has taken to sending letters to the media warning them of the risks of contempt in reporting on the courts.
“The problem with the Attorney-General sending ‘guidance letters’ is that, what can you do if you think he’s wrong?” says Chinnery.
“After all, this is the man who might decide to prosecute for contempt later. I’d argue that it’s not for the Attorney-General to seek to impose prior restrictions on broadcasters and newspapers, who might be intimidated or cowed by his actions.”
Chinnery falls foursquare into the category of media lawyers whose empathy lies with journalists and their right to freedom of expression. He says: “You can’t do the job without a commitment to Article 10 [of the European Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines freedom of expression]. The job entails working with journalists and producers every day, so you must champion their right to communicate to the public, and believe in the public’s right to receive information. The aim here is to get as much out into the public domain as possible, within the confines of the law.”
Chinnery’s legal career did not begin in the media. He started his legal life working as a clerk in a legal aid firm in the East End of London, assisting in housing, criminal and family cases. Fresh from Nottingham University with a history degree, he responded to an advertisement simply stating ‘Outdoor clerk required’. “I learnt more in my two years as an outdoor clerk about the reality of the legal profession and its role in society than in the rest of my time in the law,” he says. Chinnery visited “just about every prison within the M25 radius”, and a passion for the law developed. He completed a conversion course and his Law Society Finals at Trent Polytechnic, before joining McKenna & Co (now CMS Cameron McKenna) as a trainee in 1991.
From McKennas, he moved to Stephens Innocent (now Finers Stephens Innocent), where he was “thrown in at the deep end” and where he undertook “a mixed bag of commercial litigation and media work”. There was also some advice on the obscenity laws, with Chinnery acting for Bob Guccione, the proprietor of Penthouse.
Another colourful client was film-maker Nigel Wingrove, whose Visions of Ecstasy was decreed blasphemous and banned by the British Board of Film Classification. Chinnery took the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, but ultimately lost.
His spell at Stephens Innocent came to an end in 1997, when the job at Five came up, but not before some “invaluable” experience acting for a client called Med-TV. “Med-TV was a Kurdish broadcaster with an ITC [Independent Television Commission] licence. This was fascinating, given that Med-TV was subject to ITC rules on impartiality and not inciting disorder, and yet were broadcasting to a Kurdish population in Turkey, which itself prohibited the Kurds from having a newspaper or even speaking their own language. This was television work at its most fundamental, a huge contrast to the minutiae of broadcasting in the West and, for example, the Hutton Report. Med-TV ultimately fell foul of ITC rules on compliance with a broadcast calling Kurds to arms, but for me this represented the issues of freedom of expression for a voiceless nation that we in the UK can have no conception of.”
Chinnery was well aware that in-house media jobs were few and far between, and so jumped at the chance to join Five. He took up his present role in 2000 and spends his time on the media lawyer’s day-to-day fare of defamation, contempt, copyright, privacy and regulatory issues. Chinnery sees the arrival of Ofcom as a possible blessing, provided that certain caveats are met. “Ofcom does represent a real opportunity for a new regulatory environment, provided that at its heart there’s a commitment to the flourishing of the TV industry and a commitment to the principle of freedom of expression,” he says. “The pedantry of regulation could be given up for a more robust and principled stance.”
Five appears to be well placed to meet the challenges thrown up by a new ‘super regulator’ in the post-Hutton media world. “We’re a maturing broadcaster and have made a major commitment to undercover investigative journalism,” says Chinnery. He lists the ever-controversial broadcasts of reporter Donal MacIntyre as among the recent highlights at the channel. “Last year was one of the busiest I’ve known. There wasn’t a place or a time I could be sure that I wouldn’t get a call from Donal MacIntyre raising some legal or ethical can of worms. I hope this year will be one of more measured reflection.”
But Chinnery himself wonders whether this will be so. “It does seem unlikely working for a busy, growing broadcaster like Five,” he says.
Not to mention dealing with a proactive Attorney-General, endless post-Reynolds debate, Ofcom and ongoing analysis of what exactly the Hutton Report means to the media industry. But you get the feeling that, although he might sometimes yearn for a quieter life, Chinnery would not have it any other way.
Head of legal and compliance
Channel 5 Broadcasting
|Organisation||Channel 5 Broadcasting|
|Head of legal and compliance||Paul Chinnery|
|Reporting to||Director of legal and business affairs Colin Campbell and director of programmes Dan Chambers|
|Main law firms||CCL and Olswang|
|Barristers instructed include||Jonathan Caplan QC (5 Paper Buildings), Matthew Nicklin (5 Raymond Buildings) and Anthony Hudson (Doughty Street Chambers)|