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August 2022

London Conference to Feature Engaging Programming, Lavish Receptions, International Ambiance

By George Freeman

I often am asked what I do in this job. When I answer, the response I usually get, at least with respect to the part of my position which deals with putting on conferences, is that it sounds like I’m akin to a wedding planner. Not really: I don’t have any strong feelings about flowers; my suggestion of a band that plays the Four Seasons, Beach Boys, Temptations, and the Stones would probably not be appreciated by the current generation of young marrieds and their friends; I don’t eat desserts or drink white wine, so my menu selections would probably be pretty useless; and I don’t really want to spend my time worrying about bus schedules to transport attendees from one site to another because they are too inebriated to drive themselves.

George Freeman

Planning conferences is really not that similar—a bit more challenging, and more in the area of my expertise. I’ve been following media law issues for over two scores, so I’ve a pretty good sense of what topics will interest and be valuable to our members. I enjoy identifying and vetting engaging speakers, a task made easier in recent years by the opportunity to use You Tube and see them is action. A conference in Europe presents other appetizing opportunities in terms of the selection of sites and activities – should we have a reception on the Thames or in the National Gallery; should we have a meeting in London, Barcelona or Berlin?

Because the way such gatherings are administered varies largely from the US to Europe, other challenging contractual and logistic issues arise. For example, in negotiating our contract with the Law Society for this month’s London Conference, we were eager to discuss force majeure terms. Of course, we sought protection if a new Covid variant would make travel more difficult or impractical. The Brits, however, wanted to negotiate a term that never occurred to us: protection if Queen Elizabeth dies just prior to the conference date, which would apparently cause the whole country to shut down for a week or two, thereby keeping their employees from coming to work and actually staging the conference.

Tower Bridge, visible from our Sunday morning brunch reception.

That said, with the Queen seemingly in relatively good health, we are very excited about the upcoming London Conference, September 18-20. Dave Heller and I have planned an event which, we believe, should be exciting to all sorts of media lawyers, with a variety of educational and entertaining programs. But to be frank, credit to the MLRC should be shared with Henry VIII, William Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and all the other giants of English history and culture who have made London the cosmopolitan and handsomely traditional world capital it is. When you’re not attending a program at the neo-classical Law Society building (in a previous missive, I called it gothic, but Dave has overridden me) or one of our several mouth-watering receptions, ride a red double-decker bus to the Churchill War Rooms, take in some Victorian humor at a play in the West End, or enjoy some fine art at the Tate Modern on the banks of the Thames.

Parliament and Big Ben

Indeed, our receptions are in spectacular sites themselves. Sunday noontime is a champagne brunch hosted by our friend and colleague Mark Stephens at his offices overlooking London Bridge and the Tower Bridge – getting to or from it can enjoyably be done by taking one of the ferries which ply the Thames. Sunday night will be a cocktail reception, hosted by our own board chair Randy Shapiro, at Bloomberg Headquarters, a prize-winning modern building opened in 2017. Underneath the building is one of the UK’s most significant archaeological sites–a temple dedicated to the Roman god Mithras, including many ancient artifacts. And Monday, after a full day of programing, will be a reception in the National Gallery, a fabulous museum which overlooks Trafalgar Square and Admiral Nelson’s column.

Just as London as a setting is pretty unique, the conference itself is quite special because of its international tone and audience. In past years, almost exactly half of our attendees are from the US; the other half are from the UK, the EU, Canada, Australia and the rest of the world. We deliberately scheduled a number of fairly long breaks so that folks can meet and exchange views with colleagues from all over the globe.  

Westminster Abbey

We are well aware that because of Covid, troubled airport conditions and other reasons, travel is more challenging than it ideally should be. But statistics show that people are thriving on taking trips again, and many of us who have spent the pandemic hibernating in isolated cells are truly welcoming this opportunity to visit Europe—and, even more so, to reconnect with colleagues and friends we haven’t seen in person for several years. I guarantee a high energy level, a real sense of enjoyment in seeing familiar faces again – and all that is enhanced by the international flavor of our gathering.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, a short stroll from our conference site.

Of course, the prime reason to join us is to take in the engaging and informative programs we will be presenting. I won’t run down all of them, as they are listed on our website. But I should highlight a few: The opening program will be a look at the future of the First Amendment from 50,000 feet – where do free speech principles stand in an era of vehement opposition to hate speech, a polarized environment which seems intent on canceling opposing ideas rather than grappling with them, and a society where diehards use the media to purposefully spread disinformation.

Here comes the sun – and the MLRC London Conference, in just a few weeks!

The closing program will feature a lighthearted Oxford-style debate about whether the Internet has been a force for good or evil. (On the one hand, I love Google’s search capacity, the ability to find facts – and the answers to trivia questions – in a matter of seconds, the ease of communicating with a dozen people simultaneously, the fact that it enabled us to work from home during the pandemic, and made possible our over 100 Zoom presentations, accessible to all our members. But, on the other, I dislike waiting to confirm a date for minutes after I enter it in my written desk calendar while a friend struggles with her digital calendar; I prefer having far more interesting and efficient conversations in one telephone call to going back and forth in numerous emails; I worry that so many of our fellow citizens put as much trust in “facts” they read on social media platforms as in the legacy media; and I simply don’t understand why what the Twitterati says seems to have more influence than what you might hear at the corner bar.)

I also am excited about a program that will feature cartoonists who have been persecuted and prosecuted in Ukraine and around the world. Beyond raising many vital free speech issues, cartoonists have a lively and quirky sense of humor, as befits their daily jobs, so hearing them should be both poignant and entertaining. (I recall a conference I attended commemorating an anniversary of the Falwell v. Hustler case where the cartoonist speakers were lively and hilarious.)

I hope you’ll join what looks to be a full house of media lawyers in London.

Given that we’re in London, it would only be appropriate to have a session on litigation and the Royals – and that will include copyright, libel, privacy and other cases involving Harry, Meghan and others. And we’ll have a program on the trials of the century, focusing on the Palin trial in the US, the Johnny Depp trials in the UK and the US, and an Australian defamation trial that lasted a full year.

I hope you’ll join what looks to be a full house of media lawyers in London. You can register here. See you at Piccadilly Circus, mate.

We welcome responses to this column at gfreeman@medialaw.org; they may be printed in next month’s MediaLawLetter.

George Freeman is MLRC’s executive director.