The Society of Editors has added its voice to calls for the government to clampdown on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) following the victory by the Daily Telegraph to reveal how business tycoon Sir Philip Green had used them to silence former staff.
And the Society praised the Telegraph for fighting to publish its investigations into the billionaire which could have cost it millions in legal costs.
“I believe this whole saga shows that when it comes to protecting the public’s right to know and ensuring that the rich and powerful are held to account, the action by the Daily Telegraph underscores how it is the mainstream media that acts in the public interest,” commented Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray.
“We should not live in a country, however, where any media organisations has to risk millions in legal costs to ensure that the rich cannot buy the silence of those who have accused them of wrongdoing.”
Sir Philip dropped his legal proceedings against the Daily Telegraph on Friday, leading to the paper being able to publish accounts of allegations made against him by former staff of misconduct.
It was reported that Sir Philip, who had obtained an interim injunction against the paper to prevent publication, spent millions in fighting the case. The Telegraph also spent substantial sums in arguing that the public had a right to know that Sir Philip had paid former employees large amounts of money and had them sign NDA agreements in an attempt to gag them from speaking about allegations of sexual harassment and racist abuse.
Sir Philip was identified as being the person at the centre of the legal arguments only when former Labour minister Lord Hain named him in Parliament under parliamentary privilege.
Murray added that it should not be left to members of Parliament to use privileges to identify those rich enough to be able to buy the silence of their accusers.
“There is obviously a public interest in knowing what Sir Philip is being accused of and the fact he paid so much in an attempt to silence his accusers. He is a very rich and powerful man and such actions are not open to the majority of others. They should not be there for the very rich either.
“While the Telegraph is to be commended for staying the course and winning the day, at some risk to its coffers, this is not how a free and open society should function. It is time for the government to rule that where serious accusations of misconduct are being made then anonymity cannot be bought and those who wish to speak out should be able to do so.
“After all, there are laws that ensure that false claims are dealt with so not even the rich, powerful and famous should be afraid of facing them down in public. If the claims are true – and the Society is not saying this is the case in the allegations made against Sir Philip Green – then certainly the accusers should never face the full force of the law to silence them.”
The Society will be writing to the Prime Minister and the Attorney General to explain its concerns over the use of NDAs and to urge a change in how they are enacted and enforced.