It is with profound sadness that Media Defence has learned of the death of one the key figures in its organisational history: journalist, inaugural chair, and co-creator of Media Defence, Gwyneth Henderson.
Career with the BBC
Gwyneth joined the BBC in the early 1960s and, working for both Radio 4 and subsequently the BBC World Service, her brilliant talent for programme making soon became clear. Thereafter she joined the African Service, where she pioneered arts-based programmes. Of particular note was the ground-breaking competition for African playwrights she devised, in which the winning entries were produced for broadcast on the World Service, as well as on Radio Three.
Perhaps her greatest impact, however, was as the Head of World Service Training. There she showed a keen eye for new talent, particularly among the young journalists recruited from overseas to work for the BBC’s foreign language services. She also worked tirelessly to encourage female journalists to fulfil their potential.
After the restructuring of the BBC in the early 1990s, Gwyneth left the organisation she loved so much. She began working as a consultant for the Open Society Foundation (OSF) in the former communist states of Eastern Europe. This period would prove to be pivotal in her career, leading as it did to her involvement in the founding of Media Defence.
Legal help to journalists
In the preceding years, OSF had identified a key gap in the provision for journalists under threat for their reporting. Though organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) would campaign and lobby for the release of imprisoned journalists, there was no one facilitating their legal defence. This came into particular relief in 2004, with the trial of Indonesian journalist Bambang Harymurti, who was imprisoned for defaming an Indonesian businessman, and a number of libel cases brought by then Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, against his critics.
From around 2005, OSF started to look at strengthening the legal defence of journalists around the world. There was a round of consultations with existing press freedom organisations, but none had, or wanted, the capacity to focus on it. With this realisation, OSF began setting up a new organisation that focused solely on providing legal help to journalists. Though it was agreed that this organisation should be independent of OSF, there would still need to be a strong connection between the two. And, as serving Chair of the Board of OSF’s media program, this connection was Gwyneth.
“Alongside Peter Noorlander, Gwyneth Henderson was the brains, the fire and the determination behind the setting up of Media Defence. She led the charity for many years. Those of us who knew Gwyneth Henderson will remember her energy, guts and determination – and her total commitment to the cause of Media Defence.”
– Sarah Bull, Chair of Board of Trustees, Media Defence.
Gwyneth was the inaugural chair of Media Defence (or Media Legal Defence Initiative, as it was then known). She took on this role in 2008, when the organisation was registered, and led the board until she had served her terms in 2017.
Gwyneth worked tirelessly with Gordana Jankovic, who then headed the OSF media program, on both the design and strategy of the nascent Media Defence. In the early days, Gwyneth was closely involved in the decision-making, handling the minutiae that often comes with building an organisation from the ground up. Working alongside then CEO, Peter Noorlander, and a number of other lawyers, Gwyneth represented the interests of journalists themselves.
“Gwyneth Henderson saw herself – rightly – as the voice of journalists and journalism within Media Defence. She was very keen that we should focus on public interest journalism and on protecting journalists who really made a difference. She was very wise in these things, and her guidance became encoded in the DNA of the organisation. She was also a very warm person and offered support as well as guidance. Being the chair of an organisation is tricky, but she did it exceptionally well. She was absolutely crucial in the establishment of Media Defence. Without her the organisation would not be here today.”
– Peter Noorlander, former CEO of Media Defence.
Media Defence’s staff team and Board, past and present, express their deepest gratitude to Gwyneth Henderson, who dedicated her life to public interest reporting and its legal protection.
We extend our heartfelt condolences to Gwyneth Henderson’s family, colleagues, and many friends.
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