As far as years go, it was hardly going to be worse than 2009. But for Gill Phillips, director of editorial legal services at Guardian News & Media, she says 2010 has been the “best start to the New Year for quite a while”.
The Jackson review and a recent Ministry of Justice report into controlling costs in defamation proceedings have ensured that the debate over libel costs – a fierce battle between lawyers and newspapers over the past 12 months – continues. At the epicentre of the debate sits The Guardian and Phillips, its legal custodian, who has fought to protect her journalists and the paper in a series of high-profile, industry-defining cases such as the News of the World phone-tapping scandal and Trafigura.
The Guardian’s office at Kings Place near King’s Cross Station is less an office and more a work of art. The building’s internal glass walls, bizarre furniture and architectural trickery offer so many perspectives it is as if the guts of the building are designed to remind journalists there are always two sides to a story.
From a funky chair Phillips speaks with passion on a topic that she has watched simmer for over two decades before exploding last year.
“So much has changed in 20 years,” says the experienced campaigner, who cut her teeth at the BBC’s then new litigation department in 1987 after moving from Clifford Chance.
Thereafter followed a career that included spells as a lecturer and nine years at The Times before crossing the ideology barrier last year to join The Guardian.
It was “a dream move”, says Phillips, who sees a marked difference between the legal functions at both papers.
“The Guardian is very lucky in having an editor like Alan Rusbridger, because he’s genuinely interested in the law,” says Phillips. “The legal function here feels as if it’s much more integrated into the process – as opposed to a group of people who were consulted from time to time. At The Times lawyers weren’t part of the process so much.”
Her first day in her new job was a sign of things to come. On a sleeper train back from a holiday in Scotland Phillips received a text from Rusbridger. “At the select committee,” it read. “Meet you there.”
Rusbridger was answering questions at a Commons Culture, Media and Sport select committee inquiry, the first of two such committees in which Rusbridger took part in a year when the debate around libel and privacy laws reached fever pitch and the UK’s national papers turned their pens on each other.
When Phillips arrived she says the paper was “feeling sore” following a high-profile bust-up with Tesco over a story claiming that the supermarket had contrived tax avoidance structures. The paper had also just received exclusive footage of Ian Tomlinson being shoved by a policeman during the G20 demonstrations and police had visited the newspaper’s offices.
Far from getting back on the first available train heading north of the border, Phillips revelled in the opportunity to take such an active part in the business. Little did she know just how active her role would become, for in June the paper launched the News of the World phone-tapping scandal.
“It was a big story, not just in terms of what we wrote, but how we managed it – there was a strategic side to it,” she recalls.
Very soon after that Phillips found herself battling a new legal challenge, this time from Trafigura.
Again her team was integral to the editorial process on the original copy.
“There was a lot of crafting,” she says. “We spent a lot of time getting [the story] right.”
It came to naught, however. On 11 September The Guardian was served with a super-injunction preventing it from publishing the piece.
What followed was an unexpected question on the issue from Labour MP Paul Farrelly in the Houses of Parliament and an almighty tussle with Carter-Ruck, a firm Phillips has sat opposite on cases for 20 years.
“I don’t have any animosity towards Carter-Ruck,” says Phillips, “but the sudden overwhelming criticism over what they’d done was unexpected.
“This country used to be a place where people came to express their views, but somewhere along the line we’ve gone wrong.”
Phillips says there is an “unrealistic level of expectation” from claimants in libel cases “which I’d surmise comes from their lawyers”, she remarks pointedly.
The next 12 months, she feels, will favour the newspapers. “There’s a reality check in Jackson,” she states. “The defendant media legal organisations have been complaining for five years about costs and they’ve been vindicated.”
Name: Gill Phillips
Organisation: Guardian News &Media
Reporting to: Managing editor Chris Elliott and editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger
Company turnover: £638m
Number of employees: 780 (editorial staff)
Gill Phillips’ CV
1977-81: ma (Cantab), Selwyn College, Cambridge
1981-82: LPC: College of Law, Guildford
1982-84 trainee, coward chance
1984-87: Associate, clifford chance
1987-97: in-house solicitor, bbc
1997-98: In-house solicitor, News Group Newspapers
1998-2000: Lecturer, College of Law,
2000-09: In-house solicitor and head of litigation, Times Newspapers
2009-present: Director of editorial legal services, Guardian News & Media