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Onwards, slowly

Onwards, slowly

Tortoise’s approach to reporting – determined, relentless and resisting the urge to hop from story to story – resulted in our right to publish details of the case concerning Andrew Griffiths. It will be more important than ever in 2022


In the past month, the right to publish has been quietly making news. Three cases – Meghan and the Mail on Sunday; the New York Times and Project Veritas; and Tortoise and Andrew Griffiths – each of these cases have been arguments about citizen’s rights, about the public interest and about freedom of the press today. 

I’m James Harding, I’m the Editor and Co-founder of Tortoise, and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, well, I want, at least to start, by wishing you a heartfelt and happy new year; and then, I suppose, a change of gear. Because I also want to thank you: if you’re listening, you’re a Tortoise member – and so thank you for making it possible for us to pursue the application to publish the Griffiths judgment. It was a judgement published just before Christmas and it showed that Andrew Griffiths, a former MP and Conservative minister, had raped, abused and coercively controlled his then wife, Kate Griffiths, who herself is now the MP for Burton-upon-Trent. I like to think that the case we brought says something about what the Tortoise newsroom is for; about a bigger belief that journalism can and should be an agent of progress; and, perhaps, think that it’s all the more necessary as it coincides with a challenge to the idea of the public interest, part of a trend that’s crept up on us and looks set to shape politics and the media in 2022.

Let’s start though with those other cases. The Mail and New York Times cases have made very different kinds of noise.

On Boxing Day, normally one of the quietest news days of the year, the Mail on Sunday published the front page apology to the Duchess of Sussex for infringing her privacy, as ordered by the UK courts. In fact, in a font stipulated by the court. 

The paper, the judges found, should not have printed excerpts of a letter she wrote to her father. The judge ruled that “those contents were personal, private and not matters of legitimate public interest.” The appeal court judges had backed the ruling of the High Court, even, it should be noted, after it emerged that Meghan had misled the court.

Plenty of media ink has been spilled on this case, mostly by columnists and newspapers siding with the Mail. So, it is perhaps only worth noting that Fleet Street, which prides itself on calling out lawmakers and judges who are out of touch with public opinion, has not found much sympathy from the public in this case. If anything, it may set back the press’ case over privacy and the right to publish. Many people may have their doubts about Meghan personally, but see the point about privacy in a letter between daughter and father.

And to some it goes further; the case fuels the suspicion that a moralising press is using the defence of press freedom, accountability of the powerful and the public’s right to know to advance what is a commercial self interest – AKA the wish to sell papers.

The New York Times case, by contrast, has made, if anything, too few headlines. Just before Christmas, a judge in the New York State Supreme Court ruled not only that the New York Times could not publish certain information relating to Project Veritas, a conservative group that uses hidden cameras to sting liberal politicians and some in the media; it instructed the paper to hand over or destroy those documents. Judge Charles Wood’s argument was that these legal memos breached Project Veritas’ attorney-client privilege. He prioritised the integrity of the judicial process over the principles of freedom of the press and free speech set out in the First Amendment.

In this case, public opinion, the public interest and the newspaper’s case are surely aligned. If anything, it’s another reminder of the fragility of democracy these days in the US. A lesser exhibit than the Capitol Hill riots, maybe, but one nonetheless of how easily polarisation is eating away at the rule of law.

But, of course, we at Tortoise, we’ve been closest to the Griffiths case. 

One of the first long investigations we ran at Tortoise was by Polly Curtis. She was looking into family separation, examining, among other things, the still overwhelming secrecy of the family courts that have the responsibility of protecting children and, as a result, often separating from their parents. This was on the back of work that Camilla Cavendish had done at the Times, campaigning for some greater openness of the family courts. And then at the start of last year, the start of 2021, Louise Tickle investigated Hidden Homicides – a series of podcasts about the serial failure by the police to investigate, to document or to calculate the number of women who have violent and abusive partners who die in unexplained and unexpected circumstances. 

In the reporting for those podcasts, Louise came across someone who told her about the Griffiths case. She was told, in fact, that Her Honour Judge Williscroft had made a finding in the Derby Family Court that Andrew Griffiths, a Conservative MP and former minister, had physically and verbally abused, coercively controlled and raped his wife. And then for over a year, Louise on behalf of Tortoise, and Brian Farmer of the Press Association, with the backing of Kate Griffiths herself, fought to have those “findings of fact” – findings that are usually kept secret in the Family Courts – well to have them made public. (And, I should also say thanks to Basia Cummings, who has been Louise’s editor in all of this, who sat with her and together they considered the strength of the legal argument and had to make that decision on whether we could take the risk and afford the money of pursuing the case.)

This has been a case, of course, about abuse – about abuse of power, and about the accountability of the powerful. And, I think, even more than that. When our lawyers went before the High Court last summer, the argument we made, among others, was that when an elected MP had been found by a court of law to have abused and raped his wife while in office, the public had a right to know. At the same time, and separately, Louise Tickle has been working – campaigning, in fact – for responsible reporting of the family courts; for a greater level of openness about family justice. And then when Andrew Griffiths’ appeal against publication failed last month and the findings of the Derby Family Court were made public, the coverage – and the coverage was very widespread – prompted a debate about more than the the accountability of our politicians or our family justice system. It opened up a conversation closer to home – about abuse, coercive control and rape within marriages and relationships. Next week’s Slow Newscast will tell that story, one that, as I think you’ll agree, is in so many ways, telling.

We set up Tortoise in the hope that taking more time would enable us to get closer to the truth; that we wouldn’t have to rush from one story to the next but stick with it and follow where it leads; that, in approaching the news in this way, we might offer a journalism that’s not about distraction or division, but can improve understanding and, perhaps, inch along progress. 

And I say that because you can’t help but have a sense as we start 2022 that the pandemic, technology and inequality have conspired to encourage a new kind of insistent individualism. It’s one that’s found in the overlapping networks of anti-vaxxers and wellness warriors, crypto-believers and tech libertarians, anti-globalisation nationalists and family-first fundamentalists. It’s one that’s a murmuration more than a movement, but it’s an increasingly forceful mix of people who fear that the public good comes at the expense of their private rights, who worry that a calcified rules-based democracy takes too much of a toll on the wind-in-the-hair personal liberty, and who, sufficiently suspicious of the people who make the rules, come to the self-serving conclusion that the rules don’t apply to them. 

All of which is to explain, I hope, why at Tortoise we’ve started 2022 not so much with a shiny set of new year’s resolutions, but the hope that we can deliver on what we said we were for in the first place: a newsroom that’s slow, open and interested in what happens next. Things are changing faster than ever. The forces of those accelerating changes are meeting up themselves and then spawning more. The best thing we can do at Tortoise, we think, is keep going. 

Happy new year – and have a very good weekend.