Heavy manners and transparent threats: How lawyers try to stifle journalism

“We will be watching very carefully,” they warn.

I am working on a documentary project which has, at its heart, an accusation — which I can stand up — of serious impropriety that may even wobble over into abject criminality. This case should have been in the newspapers several years ago but it was kept out of the by a man with a rich father who could use his lawyers to lean on the editors and keep the most damaging details out of the press. That’s how it goes in the United Kingdom, where the legal system is tilted heavily in favour of the rich.

Yesterday, on Medium, I published a piece about a major Covid-19 testing supplier which was found by the HSE to have placed its couriers in danger through its choices around PPE and risk assessments. In the preparation of that story I contacted the company for comment. I received emails in reply from its PR firm which, from the start, made reference to lawyers and as I got close to pressing publish amped up the implied threats of legal pressure.

Hilariously, the PR firm ended up sending my the legal letter drafted to target a Sky News reporter and his producer who were also working the story. They also released their report last night. It was clear upon watching the Sky News report that corporate caution had diluted the story, even to the level of framing what the IWGB — a union fighting the company — does and believes.

The company had engaged Miscon de Reya, a frequent presence in the pages of Private Eye which is currently being investigated by regulators, and a firm whose entire existence is predicated on rabid dog defences of its clients. A letter from MdR is always a collection of legal points and velvet menaces. The aim is always to either stop you reporting at all or to water down your case so much that the effect of the story is negligible.

This kind of legal heavy manners is common. Ask any reporter and you’ll discover that they have received legal communications after approaching companies for comment. It’s also common to be barraged with emails and details by firms. The aim is to introduce so much chaff into the process that the reporter’s radar for where the story actually is becomes jammed. The lawyers try to introduce the fear that the narrative structure and material facts of the case are not as the reporter previously believed.

I have no doubt that I will receive further correspondence today, suggesting changes to the published piece and implying inaccuracies, despite the fact that I have incorporated all the. Company’s claims and denials into my reporting.

The aim of PR firms and lawyers in these cases is to introduce so much doubt and require you to add so many details, clarifications and ‘corrections’ that the central point of the story becomes utterly obscured. I know my reporting is sound and the story is closed barring any clearly identified factual corrections.

Mishcon de Reya’s motto is “Its business. but it’s personal.”
Well, ditto lads. With bells on.