PhD research: draft outline

A summary of my research to date for the Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism annual research update seminar

Defamation, privacy and the ‘chill’: Exploring the social and legal climate of journalism in England and Wales, 2008-13

The ‘chilling effect’* is commonly used to describe an undesirable deterrence or restriction of legitimate self-expression, in speech or writing. However, as has been well-documented by a number of legal and media scholars, definitions of socially desirable speech vary – between jurisdictions, between different judges within a single jurisdiction, between media organisations, between different individuals within a single media organisation. Subjective lines are drawn to balance competing rights of freedom of expression on the one hand and reputational and privacy rights on the other, whether in the courts or in daily media activity.

This research examines the ‘chilling effect’ concept, which can be found in judicial consideration of freedom of expression cases, as well as in popular discourse, through defamation and privacy law developments in England and Wales, over the last five years (2008-13). Drawing on Pierre Bourdieu’s field theory and more recent discussion of news ecosystems, this doctoral project situates the editorial process in both journalistic and legal fields, identifying a wider ‘media-legal ecosystem’, in which editorial decisions are made, influenced by a variety of legal and socio-economic factors.

The analysis is based on empirical socio-legal research: interviews with legal specialists in defamation and privacy; close monitoring of online content; examination of relevant litigation and courts data; surveys among journalists and online writers; and observation and participation in media law and policy discussions. It strives to give greater clarity and contextualisation to the ‘chilling effect’ concept and provide recommendations for the auditing of litigation, dispute resolution and media coverage, to better inform the policy making process, as well as public understanding of key factors affecting defamation, privacy and journalism.

*For an explanation of the ‘chilling effect’, see this poster [PDF], presented at the Socio-Legal Studies Association annual conference in York.

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