Yesterday saw journalists rewarded in memory of the campaigning journalist Paul Foot, with the Guardian’s Ian Cobain taking the first prize for his investigation into Britain’s involvement in the torture of terror suspects detained overseas.
But as Private Eye editor Ian Hislop reminded the audience, it was a night to remember Private Eye journalist Paul Foot, who died in 2004. Foot’s stories live on and influence today’s news, Hislop said: “There is a sense in which five years on, we’re still doing this award and Paul remains extraordinarily alive. People say journalism is fish and chip paper the next day. Well, that isn’t always true.
The Lockerbie story is a prime example, said Hislop. Foot provided the foundations for the ongoing journalistic investigation into the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am 103, uncovering evidence which throws uncertainty over the Scottish judges’ sentencing of Libyan Abdelbaset Al Megrahi to life imprisonment in 2001.
“Paul’s investigation from five, six years ago is the starting point for a story that’s still going on,” said Hislop.
“The ludicrous detail. I love the idea of Paul’s reaction [that] the man [Al Megrahi] was freed for compassionate reason; that would have amused him.”
Foot’s story on the solicitor Michael Napier, was another of his investigations that resurfaced this year, when Private Eye was threatened with an injunction courtesy of lawyers Carter-Ruck.
“In came the injunction, we weren’t allowed to say who it was (…) We won a case in front of Justice Eady – now you can imagine how crap their [the claimant’s] case must have been. That we won in front of Eady, unbelievable,” joked Hislop.
Once past Eady, the Eye finally won in the Court of Appeal, but he wasn’t just crowing over his Carter-Ruck victory, Hislop said, rather emphasising ‘that even a story Paul wrote 10 years ago (…) never quite finishes and he’s still there’.
And now, investigative journalism needs more help than ever, he added: “[Investigative reporting] needs encouraging for obvious reasons, particularly in a recession: it’s difficult; it’s slow; it’s expensive; it’s risky. There’s no advertising. There are very few local newspapers. People are more interested in the death of the dinner party as a subject to fill a paper.
“This year has seen quite a lot of threats to investigative journalism.
“This year the editor of the Guardian and I were called to talk to the parliamentary select committee about the problems of libel and injunctions. I said there was a chill wind of libel blowing, particularly for these secret injunctions. And Alan [Rusbridger] said it wasn’t a big problem for the Guardian. That was pre-Trafigura so we had a good laugh later, when the Guardian was hit by it.
“These are the injunctions that are served on you and you’re not allowed to say what was in the injunction and you’re not allowed to say there was an injunction.”
Hislop, at this point, directed the audience’s eyes to the wall: “A charming portrait of Mr Marr – and we take that thought home…” [last year the BBC political correspondent won an injunction to stop the media revealing ‘private information’ about him, only recently reported; details remain undisclosed].
Foot would have loved this year’s short and long-list, continued Hislop. Stories about MPs’ expenses, for example, he said. “Again Carter-Ruck involved trying to stop that! Not that they’re in all the stories, but they are…” he added, as his last jibe to the firm for which the Eye has such a fond nickname.
But not the last time he stuck his tongue out at the legal profession. As he reached the nomination for Mail reporters, Stephen Wright and Richard Pendlebury, he waved two letters in the air; attempts sent today, Hislop claimed, to try and prevent him reading out the prize citation – a copy of which is available on the Private Eye website of course.