Now we at Hacks like to tackle all sorts of issues relating to making it in journalism and one topic which has been neglected by us so far is the law. Legal issues affect journalists everyday and with all the talk of superinjunctions, privacy and phone-hacking in recent months we thought it high time we got the law involved on the site.
Those of you smart enough to have subscribed to our fortnightly newsletter will have spotted an announcement on this a few weeks back and now we are pleased to begin the Wannabe Hacks Legal Series which, as you might have guessed, will be a series of posts on various legal topics. We have a few crackers lined up but if you have any area of media law which you would like us to look into or perhaps write about yourself then email email@example.com or tweet us @wannabehacks.
First up in the series is an interview with Gill Phillips, the Director of Editorial Legal Services at the Guardian. In this first part Gill talks about how she came to work in the media and what it is like to head the legal department of a national newspaper.
How do you come to work in such a senior position for a national newspaper?
I did the more traditional route when it came to qualifying as a lawyer but three years post qualification I saw an advert for litigation lawyers for the BBC which I thought was an awful lot more interesting than what I was doing at the time in the banking sector. I got the job and spent ten years at the BBC as an in-house lawyer doing pre-publication advice and some litigation work. I then went on to The Sun and News of the World for a couple of years doing the same kind of thing and after a break to do some teaching I went back to The Times and then on to the Guardian.
Did you intend to work in the media when you were training to become a lawyer?
No not at all, I think I was lucky with the fact that the BBC had just been involved in a couple of quite substantial bits of litigation and they were conscious that even in those days employing outside lawyers was expensive and therefore wanted to develop in-house litigation advisors. I imagine it is much tougher to get into this type of work these days.
What exactly does your role at the Guardian entail?
One area of my work is the general pre-publication aspects. The Guardian has a team of night lawyers who come in and read through the paper so these days I don’t tend to do the day-to-day legalling. But making sure the articles published are defensible is of course vital. The second thing is dealing with the complaints after we’ve published and defending the paper. That is not just in cases of defamation it can be contempt, copyright, breach of confidence, privacy increasingly these days. And then there is the proactive strategic role in keeping an eye on the law itself and the possible changes which are taking place and making sure we are engaged with those changes when we need to be.
No one day can be the same then?
Well yes that is one of the great joys of the job, you don’t know what is around the corner. This job certainly helps keeping up to date with the latest current affairs although I have to say I am not the best at knowing what the latest news is all about when it comes to celebrities and the latest reality TV shows.
How do you and the legal team work with the journalists at the paper?
We encourage all our journalists to involve the lawyers as early as possible. It may well be that there is not much legal input needed but it may well be that the more time you have the smoother things are. The worst thing in the world is getting a great 5000 word piece with half and hour to go to a print deadline because you have to be pretty brutal at that stage and things get cut that shouldn’t get cut. The main news desk journalists are pretty savvy with that now and they will discuss any potential allegations and problems in advance and that collaborative process works well. It relies on the journalists informing the lawyers and also trusting the lawyers. I have had cases in the past where journalists only tell you half the story or show you half an interview and then you can be in real trouble.
You have said before that Alan Rusbridger is great to work for because of his interest in media legal matters. Do you wish all journalists were as interested in legal issues or are you glad some of them make mistakes to keep you busy?
It’s certainly good to have people who understand that you [the lawyers] aren’t just being difficult and bloody minded and that there are cost consequences and reputational factors to consider. Alan’s attitude does pervade through the Guardian as an institution so I think that is good to have him setting an example.
Make sure you check Hacks on Thursday for part two of our interview when Gill Phillips talks about the future of media law, superinjunctions and gives her advice for us wannabes when it comes to the law.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look