Legal Hackette lunches with Frances Gibb

thumbnail_frances gibb updated headshot 15_06_2012 - 15.56.05 - TIMNEWS - PR_FrancesGibb-04Over a croque madame, chips and large glass of chardonnay at Dalys, just off Fleet Street – the historic home of newspapers — the recently retired legal editor of The Times, discusses the horror of being interviewed under caution, warns over the biggest challenge for the legal profession and offers top tips for legal PRs.

Frances Gibb has spent 46 years in journalism. She was at The Times for 40 of them, serving under nine editors from William Rees-Mogg to John Witherow, and took over the legal beat in 1982.

She grew up in the north London suburbs of Edgware and Barnet, the eldest of three children. Her father was a solicitor and later in life, her mother became a writer of short stories.

Frances studied English at the University of East Anglia and, after graduating with a first, sought her first job in journalism. “I thought I’ll take any job in the media because it was quite hard to get jobs. So I applied for a whole host of things.”

The first thing that came up was a six-month stint at news film agency, Visnews, where she had “a very lowly job filing cuttings”. From there, she went to The Times Higher Educational Supplement, where she spent four years, before joining The Daily Telegraph as art sales correspondent.

“They wanted someone to take on The Times, which at that time had Geraldine Norman – the doyenne of the arts sales world, who was doing massive investigations and huge exposés of forgers. I barely know a thing about auction houses. It was quite daunting.”

She was sent to India to cover what was to be the biggest sale of jewels in the world. “It was going to make absolutely millions. Sotheby’s were handling it. But after three or four days of political wrangling the government blocked it, so I had a week in India for nothing, which was absolutely fabulous.”

Reeling off other big stories covered – the British Rail pension fund investing in art works and a record-breaking sale – she interjects: “Interrupt me if I’m not telling you what you want”.

After four years, she fancied the more varied diet of a general reporter, and in 1979 joined The Times, which had started recruiting again after having closed its doors over a dispute with the unions around manning levels and the introduction of new technology.

The paper was based in Gray’s Inn Road and although the newspaper industry back then was, she says, probably more egalitarian than the legal profession, she recalls: “When I went to look for a desk, another established woman reporter said: ‘Don’t come over here – we don’t want it to become a women’s corner’.”

Among the major stories she covered was the crash in Tenerife in 1980 of a Boeing 727 from Manchester that killed all passengers and crew. Covering the story meant visiting the scene of the disaster which was strewn with personal belongings and body parts. By contrast, she was among the team that covered the wedding of Princes Charles and Lady Diana Spencer in 1981.

After a couple of years of the variety of the general beat, she became slightly fed up with being pushed from pillar to post and wanted the greater control of a specialist patch. The legal job came up after her predecessor Marcel Berlins left to write crime novels.

But her appointment was not straight forward because, unlike the previous holders of the post, she was not a lawyer. She had to make her case to the then editor, Charles Douglas-Home. “I said that I had to write the stories for the wider public – for lay people, not for lawyers, and that as a journalist I was best placed to do it.

“I think they were slightly dubious,” she says and, as she recalls in the valedictory piece she wrote for the paper the week before she left, the consternation expressed by one senior judge continued to be voiced by some commentators for years after her appointment.

Confounding the doubters, for 37 years of her distinguished career, her distinctive clear and engaging writing has playing a huge role in enhancing the public’s understanding of legal issues of the day and the legal profession.

Her advice to budding journalists looking to follow in her footsteps, is “take the opportunities” that come your way and do not limit your horizons.

Since the late-1980s, when the The Lawyer and later Legal Week came on the scene alongside the older titles — New Law Journal, Law Society Gazette and Solicitors Journal – she says a strand of “legal journalism” has grown up.

But to those who ask her “how can I be a legal journalist?” her reply is: “Don’t ask to be a legal journalist; be a journalist and then see where you go. It’s all journalism and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s legal or education or health.

“I would have been happy to have done all of those, but I actually think I got the best job in the end because it’s so interesting.”

Frances bowed out on a high, writing on her final day a story about divorce reform, which would be the paper’s splash the following day. But she is modest about her achievements. “I haven’t brought down any governments. I really haven’t had any massive scoops. I like to think I just had a regular run of smaller things.”

One story that she says gained a lot of traction, was about the lord chancellor, Derry Irvine, likening himself to Cardinal Wolsey. “It came in the wake of stories about his purchase of £650,000 of Pugin-designed wallpaper for his official residence. The tabloids went wild and made mock-ups of him as Wolsey in a palace.”

As she recalls in The Times: “Irvine was livid. He launched into a torrent of abuse when I was seated opposite him at a dinner shortly afterwards: I had ‘no soul’, he told me, and I was a ‘silly goose’.”

In 2009 Frances got to see what it was like to be on the wrong side of the law. By a majority verdict of 10-2 a jury at Reading Crown Court convicted a child minder of the manslaughter of the 11-month-old child in her care. One of the dissenting jurors, concerned that the wrong verdict had been reached, was keen to talk.

“He approached us and we duly did an interview. We didn’t identify the case and it all went through the lawyers. It was very carefully done, but that wasn’t good enough for the law officers, so they prosecuted us of contempt of court,” she recalls.

Gavin Miller argued for the paper that that contempt proceedings could not be justified in the light of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression, and that it was in the public interest for the press to tell the public what happened in court proceedings. But it was to no avail and the paper was fined £15,000.

“There were quite a few judges who recused themselves, because they said they knew me,” says Frances. Lord Justice Pill and Mr Justice Sweeney heard the cases, and she recalls “they were quite nice in the end and tried to exonerate me in the judgment. But it was a strict liability offence and we were found guilty.”

PA, the news agency, she adds, were very nice about it all and didn’t mention her name in their copy.

“The worst aspect was having to go and do the police interview, which was really unpleasant,” she recalls. As a favour to her, it was done outside London in Maidenhead. Laughing, she says: “I don’t quite know why that was a favour – I think they did it in case I was recognised – as if I was a celebrity.”

Peter Binning, the solicitor instructed to act for her by the paper, advised her to give a “no comment” interview.

“They asked very detailed questions about the amount of research done and the toing and froing between different news editors. I couldn’t remember the half of it. It lasted for 45 minutes and I followed his advice and didn’t answer any questions. I think he was quite amazed that I managed it.”

After the verdict, she says the office was very nice about it, adding: “I blame the lawyers.”

Looking back over her career, she says the job has “changed beyond recognition” and “without a doubt” the biggest factor is the internet.

Recalling the move from Gray’s Inn Road to Wapping, which happened overnight and marked the “complete change from an analogue to digital world in an instant,” she says: “We were all ‘phoned over the weekend and told to report to Wapping. Nobody, except a very small group of people knew about the secret project.

“I remember arriving and there were no typewriters. I was just presented with this computer. It sounds ridiculous now, but I actually remember handwriting my stories and then copying them laboriously onto the computer. I wasn’t able to just write it straight onto the keyboard.”

The internet, she says, enables speedy online research. “Gone are the days of trailing over to cuttings libraries and getting dusty files full of cuttings out.”

With social media, it have changed the pace of news, making it more immediate. “You can’t sit on a story and produce it the next day in a leisurely way in the paper.” And instead of writing a couple of stories a day, the digital editions mean she can write five or six stories a day.

“Paradoxically, the internet makes it quicker and easier to access information, but makes it harder to get out of the office.”

Turning to the legal profession, the biggest change she says, has been the way it is perceived by the news desk, who represent the public. While an anti-professional culture has long been pervasive in Fleet Street, along with the feeling that there is too much reverence for judges, she says there is now even less deference.

“When I started there would be a leisurely Law Society conference lasting five days and we’d all go off and have nice meals in the evenings – then there’d be the president’s speech and that would always be a page lead.

“Anything the president says now has to fight to get in on its own merits; they will never just take a speech because it’s by the president of the Law Society – or even the lord chief justice.”

Newspapers, or The Times at any rate, she says, used to be more concerned about being a paper of record, and as such would report on the daily events in court cases, in the same way that it covered parliamentary debates. But, she notes: “That doesn’t happen anymore … We’re lucky to get an opening in the paper and then after that it’s the judgment.”

Colourful legal characters and old-style florid rhetoric, she says, are a thing of the past, and it is the graphic, colourful details of cases that determine coverage.

“What the news desk want has changed, but there is still an appetite for things legal,” she insists and is not all sexy stuff, sexual harassment and naughty judges. “They are interested in ground-breaking cases or things pushing the law forward, and everything has to have human interest.”

Looking ahead she says: “The biggest challenge for the legal profession is the need to address the fact that it is almost impossible for women to have children, stay in the profession and rise to the top.”

“It’s bad enough in journalism, but it’s really tough in law, especially at the criminal bar – the hours are long, you have to travel away from home and the conditions are terrible. It’s so unattractive. No one in their right mind would do it.”

She warns: “Until they sort that out they are going to lose some of the best people.” Judges, she says, have to be more understanding about the how stressful juggling a career and a family is – “one little thing and the whole fragile network of arrangement collapses”.

A big change in recent years has been arrival of PRs across the legal profession, which she says is a “mixed blessing”.

Judges, once aloof and often rude and irascible, are now media-savvy and more polite. But while access to them is easier, it is on their terms and they remain guarded about what they say.

Communication with ministers has, since the days of Tony Blair, become more centrally controlled by Downing Street. Ministerial press briefings are rare, and gone are the days of informal drinks or lunches with senior officials.

Of law firm or chambers PRs, she says: “They can facilitate the writing of an urgent comment piece or quote when we are up against a deadline; but they can be unhelpful or even obstructive if they decide that helping is not in their interest.”

Recognising the inherent tension between what journalists need and what PRs want for their law firm or chambers’ clients, she says: “They want their experts quoted or pieces by them printed, but they don’t always understand what makes a good quotation or commentary.

“They also often don’t appreciate the nature of our business and the importance of speed. And unless they have a background in journalism, they don’t understand what will make a story.” Those few PRs who do, she adds are “worth their weight in gold”.

The biggest frustration, she found, was when PRs from whom she would take regular pieces, were less happy to oblige when she was in desperate need of a quote or information from a client who was in the news. “It really has to be a two-way street,” she says.

Among her top tips: When pitching articles or commentaries, make sure they are topical and tied to current news, write them with that news peg in the intro; and write them clearly and simply, without legal case references.

Refer to cases by the facts – as in: “In a recent court of appeal ruling when a woman challenged her mother’s will …’ rather than ‘in Bloggs v Bloggs’.”

When commenting on a breaking news story: “Keep the quotes short and don’t fill them with detail of what the ruling says. We know that. Talk about the implications and throw the story forward, for example — ‘there is now a danger that x will happen’ or ‘ministers must now act to do x or y’.”

When contacted by a journalist: “Return the call quickly with the information wanted or come back to explain at least why you can’t supply the info. Even a returned call to say ‘we won’t be commenting on this’ is better than a rude silence.”

And, she adds: “When a lawyer does take a call, there is nothing more frustrating and disingenuous than the common cop-out – ‘I don’t have my client’s instructions to speak on this’.”

Despite the insight and wisdom that she could impart to legal PRs, a career in legal consultancy does not appeal. She’s not sure what she will do next. “I can’t think beyond this week,” she says. After lunch, she is off to pick up Bella, her eight-month-old Labrador and submit her final expenses claim.

It is clear that Frances has loved the job that has given her a ringside seat at moments of history and allowed her to mingle with many leading legal figures.

“If I was told I couldn’t do journalism, which would still be my first love, I think law would be a great second,” she says – preferring the bar to being a solicitor. “I couldn’t bare working in a big City law firm where you’d get lost in some big corporate machine.”

Even with the roles reversed, the consummate professional is looking at this interview with the eyes of a journalist. Concerned that her answers have not provided good enough copy, she asks: “Do you want anything else? If you think of any more questions or want me to make any of my answers a bit more lively, just send me an email and I’ll do my best.

“I know what it’s like when you think ‘how am I going to make a silk purse out of this?’”

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