At a glace:  The Guardian’s legal adviser, Gill Phillips, held a 75-minute Q and A session during which she described the legal challenges of working for a global newspaper.  She said it was important for media companies to collaborate, especially in breaking big stories in different legal jurisdictions. For example, in the Wikileaks case, due to prior restraint laws in the UK, “we got other newspapers to publish first,” she said.  Phillips defended The Guardian’s role in the Wikileaks and Edward Snowden cases. “It’s not the media that took the material. We did what every journalist would do,” she said. Gill saw worrying trends in the US and the UK on press freedoms, saying they are “no longer bastions in protecting free speech.”

Q&A with Ms. Gill Phillips (Director, Editorial Legal Services, Guardian News and Media, UK) (1hr15min)
Moderator: Mr. Danny Gittings (Associate Professor, Senior Programme Director, College of Humanities and Law, HKU SPACE)

Day One of the conference ended with a special Q & A session with Ms. Gill PhilipsDanny Gittings began the session by observing The Guardian’s reputable investigative journalism, demonstrated most recently by its breaking of the phone-hacking story despite hostility from other British media, as well as its leading coverage of Julian Assange, Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations.

Phillips traced a number of significant changes in the media law environment from when she first started her career, with a predominant focus in print media and local UK news.  Times have changed, as today’s newspapers publish news stories round the clock in multiple jurisdictions and thus are constantly faced with the threat of litigation in different legal regimes.  The question of liability is made all the more complex with the increase in user-generated content on news websites, as well as the expansion of civil causes of action to include privacy, data protection and prior restraint concerns, etc. Yet the ability of a global news organization such as The Guardian to extend its operation over different jurisdictions has enabled it to make strategic decisions in the publication of sensitive stories.

Phillips criticized the recommendations of the Leveson Report as setting a bad precedent for the rest of the world in its recommendations for press regulation.  The impracticality of the proposals was epitomized by the suggestion that confidential journalistic sources should only be protected if there is a written agreement.  Another proposal for a complaint structure, under which editors of a news organization would have the primary responsibility of dealing with complaints of the press, would burden smaller newspapers and magazines that may lack the funds and skilled personnel to set up such procedures, Phillips said.

The maintenance of news archives also raises contempt of court concerns, such as materials published prior to an individual’s criminal charge, which may run the risk of prejudicing the case, although Phillips pointed out that the risk of contempt is minimal in reality as the access to The Guardian’s archives are restricted to specific keyword searches.  She referred to The Guardian’s common practice is to issue a notice acknowledging the subsequent development of the case.

Phillips also directed the audience to the constant campaign for open justice and the publication of matters in the public interest, issues which warrant wider public debates in the UK.  Pointing to critics of The Guardian’s publication of Edward Snowden’s disclosure of NSA classified documents, which some have condemned as jeopardizing national security, Phillips said that The Guardian merely published information that it had received from a journalistic source.

In providing legal advice to a global news organization on a daily basis, she described her job as essentially one of risk-assessment, as she and her team keep a close eye on news stories to ensure that journalists and editors understand the legal risks of publishing certain news stories.   On a lighter note, noting the wide array of issues that she has been called to address, she quipped that she often felt like “a “Jill” of all trades and the mistress of none”.  Phillip also urged those aspiring to embark on a career in media law to consolidate essential legal skills in litigation, keeping in mind the multiple routes towards becoming a media law lawyer.

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