Why shadow culture minister Bryant is one to watch

Why shadow culture minister Bryant is one to watch

Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer should be commended for working to tackle ‘Slapps’, but we’d be in good hands if Sir Chris Bryant takes the reins to finish the work.

Nobody hangs around very long in the Culture Department these days — although in the case of Nadine Dorries that was a very good thing indeed.

The speed of the revolving door does mean that very little can be achieved by any individual Culture Secretary before its time for upwards or out.

The latest incumbent Lucy Frazer, whose holding of the portfolio goes all the way back to February, can at least boast of one useful achievement. On Monday, she launched a taskforce to find out how best to tackle Slapps or “strategic lawsuits against public participation.”

Delay, suppress, bully

Investigative journalists need no introduction to Slapps. Such a lawsuit, by usually wealthy individuals of dubious reputation, could cost a journalist their homes. The modus operandi is usually to sue both individual journalists and their news organisations to prevent publication of damaging allegations, which they argue would be defamatory or a breach of their privacy.

The aim is not necessarily to win — that may be very difficult in the face of the facts — but to tie up both individuals and news organisations in both time-consuming and cripplingly expensive litigation. The result can be that information that is mightily in the public interest is suppressed or endlessly delayed.

According to openDemocracy, one of those who tried to use a Slapp in the London courts was the late Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. He had been trying to avoid sanctions and launched a legal attack on the British journalist Eliot Higgins of the investigative website Bellingcat.

The case collapsed when Prigozhin’s lawyers withdrew, but Higgins still faced legal fees of £70,000, a sum that would have been many times larger if the case had made it to a full hearing.

Whether or not Lucy Frazer makes it all the way to the next election as Culture Secretary (history would suggest the chances are low) she will have achieved something by highlighting the scandal of Slapps.

Pointless possession

There are, however, a few worrying niggles. The very use of the term “taskforce” is enough to set off a few alarms bells. Will anything ever happen as a result?

The taskforce will have representatives from the Society of Editors, the News Media Association, the National Union of Journalists and the Law Society of England and Wales. But the fact that the taskforce will only meet bi-monthly suggests something less than the speed of light.

Research will be commissioned to find out the prevalence of Slapps and specialist training is promised for judges and legal professionals, all good delaying mechanisms.

When the bi-monthly meetings come to an end, presumably sometime deep into next year, the taskforce will be tasked with coming up with non-legislative responses to Slapps.

In the run up to the next general election, the chance of such an issue fighting its way through the political noise seems low — a bit like pointless possession from the England football team.

Frazer emphasises that economic crime-linked Slapps will be dealt with under the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. It will then be easier for judges to throw out spurious cases and limits on costs could be imposed.

If legislation is deemed to be required covering non-economic activities such as sexual-misconduct, then the Culture Secretary has promised that the Ministry for Justice could do something “as soon as Parliamentary time allows.”

Doubtless, the bi-monthly taskforce will carry out its duties effectively, but you don’t need a stopwatch to work out that Slapps will not be rooted out before the next general election.

Sir Chris may have the making of a very good Culture Sec

Unless something very strange and unusual happens to public opinion in the coming months the job of finally ending the abuse of Slapps will fall to the next Labour Government.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions, and the incoming Minister for the Creative Industries and Digital Sir Chris Bryant, should be well able to stamp out this form of vexatious litigation, which is having a chilling effect on public discourse.

Sir Chris made his interest in such matters clear last year in the House of Commons when he urged the Justice Ministry to go faster in dealing with clandestine Russian money in the UK.

“The people of Britain have never known the truth about Russian money, because journalists, broadcasters, sometimes politicians and Governments have been too frightened to go to court because they know the pockets on the other side are so deep and they are terrified they will lose their homes or business,” says Sir Chris.

It is possible to peer over the wall of the next election and make an early prediction: that Sir Chris Bryant may have the making of a very good Minister in the Culture Department.

It might have been better to break with recent tradition and give Sir Chris, who has considerable ministerial and Parliamentary experience as both a former shadow Arts Minister and Shadow Culture Secretary, the top job in a brief he knows so well.

He would also come to the task after a distinguished period chairing the Commons Standards Committee and writing a well received book: Code of Conduct — Why We Need To Fix Parliament and How to Do It.

He also has cutting edge practical knowledge of the tabloid press and received £30,000 in damages as a result of his phone being hacked by the News of the World.

Why, before politics took over, Sir Chris even managed to fit in two years at the BBC as head of European Affairs.

It may only be a memory now, but some knowledge of the BBC will come in useful because the future of the BBC and its licence fee will be one of the bulkier items in his in-tray if Labour wins the next election.

An end in itself

Instead the top Culture job went to Thangam Debbonaire, whose previous expertise was in the politics of housing.

There is little doubt that Labour will be less hostile to the BBC than the current Government or that Debbonaire will greatly benefit from the knowledge of Sir Chris Bryant.

Many Tory supporters have visceral instincts that the Corporation represents too great an interference with the free market rather than being an enduring and important British institution.

Most important of all when Debboniare looks at the future of the BBC and the licence fee (and a detailed review is absolutely necessary) we can only hope she can be trusted to make it an honest review that looks at all the options for funding a national public service broadcaster including a modified version of the status quo.

Perhaps they should set up a taskforce.

Above all, the new Culture Secretary should see the job as an end in itself rather than a stepping-stone to somewhere else.

She should note that an effective predecessor Chris Smith, now Lord Smith, served for four years as Culture Secretary not the usual few months and the difference showed.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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