action victory for Marks & Spencers
threatens press freedom
By Jean Shaoul
14 March 1998
Marks and Spencer's victory in its libel case against World In
Action, Granada TV's flagship current affairs programme, will further
muzzle investigative journalism and add another weapon to the armoury
of the major corporations. It will make it that much more difficult
to say things big business does not want the public to hear.
Lawyers for M & S, the upmarket food and clothing retailer,
admitted that a successful prosecution would create further problems
for lawyers representing the media and other defendants. Britain
already has some of the strictest libel laws in the world.
M & S likes to be known as Britain's favourite store and boasts
that most of its goods are made in Britain. It sued World in Action
after its programme "St Michael: Has the Halo Slipped?"
was broadcast in 1996. (St Michael is M & S's brand label.)
World in Action went to Morocco, after discovering that there were
young children working in a factory making clothing for M &
S. They secretly filmed the conditions there.
The facts are not in dispute and provide a shocking indictment
of the brutality of the profit system.
- Dozens of girls aged 13, 14 and 15, worked at the factory;
- They worked 49 hours a week for as little as 10 pence an hour
(15 cents US) and in temperatures of up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
- M & S's supplier deliberately mislabelled more than 7,000
garments as having been made in the UK. Apparently unaware of
the mislabelling, M & S put them on sale to the public.
M & S sued for libel, insisting that the programme implied
that M & S knew about these abuses. Granada TV said it did not
believe M & S knew and did not intend to convey that impression.
The libel action was expected to last six weeks. Three days into
the trial, however, and before hearing the facts and evidence of
the case, the judge took the unprecedented step of asking the jury
to decide what they thought was the meaning of the programme. Did
it mean that M & S knew about the abuses?
The jury found that it did. Unable to clarify their intentions
before the jury, Granada felt obliged to apologise and pay damages
of £50,000 plus costs-a total of £1.3 million.
As a result of this ruling, the media must now anticipate how viewers
might interpret a programme. Interpretation, however, is based not
only on the facts as presented, but also on the viewers' previous
knowledge and experiences. These quite naturally predispose many
to believe the worst of big business. Even had Granada included
a disclaimer that M & S did not know about the abuses, many
viewers might have still concluded that the company was aware of
The future of World in Action is now in jeopardy, with the editor
set to resign and three of the programme's top journalists having
left to join the BBC or Channel Four. But the repercussions go beyond
the fate of this one programme. Since the case was heard by one
of only two judges who hear libel cases, it is very likely that
this ruling will be used again.
At the very least, as legal experts admit, it will tend to scare
off those without deep pockets from making criticisms of large corporations.
This comes at a time when programme makers are already under pressure
to trim budgets and sacrifice quality in the interest of increasing
audience market share. That means avoiding expensive exposés
of corporate swindles and exploitation, making it more difficult
for the public to find out about such matters.