John Walker's Electronic House

Libel Tourism, And Why Speech Is Not Free

by on Oct.20, 2009, under Rum Doings, The Rest

At the centre of so many of the current super-injunctions and and brain-meltingly bizarre libel decisions in UK courts is one judge, Mr Justice Eady. In my previous post I asked whether anyone knew whether he was the judge behind the Trafigura rulings. As it turns out, he was not. A fact that surprised the Guardian’s George Monbiot as much as it did me, as he explains in a fantastic piece about this man whose decisions have been described by appeal court judges as, “plainly wrong”, “legally erroneous” and have earned comparisons with the Communist party censors in the Soviet Union.

Eady, Monbiot explains, is a force behind the existence of libel tourism in this country, and a huge part of the reason why courts in other countries are creating new laws to protect their citizens from his potential rulings.

So often you hear stupid, loud people screeching about “free speech” and how theirs is being taken from them. Inevitably they’re being given absolute freedom to scream this with no one trying to stop them, and indeed are only spurting their self-important idiocy because they saw someone else disagreeing with them. But in this case the actions of the UK libel courts are a genuine example of free speech being at risk, and indeed completely denied.

Libel tourism allows cases with no relevance to the UK to be held here, in order that our berserk libel laws can be applied (the onus of proof is on the defendant in our demented isle, so should someone accuse a quack of not being able to cure cancer with a magic wand, astonishingly it is not incumbent upon the quack to prove he can, but rather the rational scientist to somehow prove the quack cannot – no mean feat when the quack isn’t likely to volunteer himself for any proof-gathering experiments). Private Eye has long been chronicling the lunatic legal actions of Khalid bin Mahfouz, who used Eady’s rulings to have books pulped that he didn’t like – ones that mentioned the links he had with various nefarious people and groups, and the crimes he’d committed. He’s dead now, which is nice. And means the newspapers that were too afraid to report the stories at the time are now relishing in them, with no risk of being sued by a corpse. Private Eye were publishing them throughout. There’s more details in Monbiot’s article.

Simon Singh wrote yesterday in the Times about another serious consequence of this squashing of free speech – the fear academics and scientists experience about whether to publish their findings, or make statements based in evidence. Singh is of course currently being sued for stating that he believes Chiropractic cannot cure certain diseases or ailments. Last Wednesday he won the right to appeal against Eady’s ruling that had essentially sealed his defeat. Singh stated what he sees as fact based on available evidence – something he does quite routinely as a scientist, and very wonderfully in his book Trick Or Treatment – but the British Chiropractic Association sees as defamation. Extraordinarily it is not up to the BCA to scientifically demonstrate their claims, but rather for Singh to prove them false if he wishes to state that they’re bogus. Sadly I don’t have the hundreds of thousands of pounds it would cost me to give my own opinion on this matter. Which is the problem Singh describes. I can’t make an argument based on available evidence or I’ll be forced to take it down or become bankrupt. Speech, not so free in these matters. (Although Ben Goldacre last weekend broke down the evidence that’s currently available.) (Oh, and Singh has some excellent words about the Positive Internet Company in the piece, who frequently stand up for important sites whose ISPs are taking them down after specious legal threats. And they host this blog too. And indeed the company is co-directed by my Rum Doings partner, Nick Mailer.)

Private Eye is of course a flawed organ, and a glance at the letters page in any issue will tell you how many mistakes they make. But despite this, it’s a vitally important publication, the only one willing to stand up against these ridiculous rulings and fight in the courts to have them overturned. In fact, as Stephen Fry pointed out today, editor Ian Hislop was facing prison for violating the ruling for Trafigura in the latest issue, until it was overturned last week. If you’re not reading it, I really strongly recommend spending that £1.50 a fortnight. If anything, you can join the few hundred thousand readers who will have spent the last week or so mostly feeling annoyed that only now is anyone else getting angry about Eady, libel tourism and super-injunctions – subjects they’ve been shouting about for many months, and indeed challenging newspapers to pick up on. It’s a little sad to see the complete lack of kudos being given to them by the papers, many of whose stories are entirely dependent upon the Eye’s investigations, but then that’s been par for their course since they started in the 1960s.

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Jazmeister

    You could always say “allegedly” a lot.

  • frymaster

    while I agree positive appear to have really good customer service, it has to be said that for the prices they charge, they bloody well ought to. My friends and me looked into them when we were scouting around for a general-purpose dedicated server (web, email, VPN service, game servers, voice comms and a few other things) and they charge about twice as much for an eighth of the bandwidth (and a worse specced box) as others

  • NM

    “they charge about twice as much for an eighth of the bandwidth (and a worse specced box) as others”.

    That really isn’t true, but this is not the forum in which to discuss marketing. I will say that others do tell lies about what you *actually* get for your money, in order to nab the sale (and then send you little invoices throughout the year for those “little extras”). We have enough people migrating to us with such tales to know it’s almost the norm elsewhere! As for the box spec is actually pretty negotiable. It’s hardly the hardware that costs…

    Next time you want to host something, get in touch. We’ll do you a better deal than the rubbish out there. We won’t be the cheapest, because we don’t scrabble in the bargain bin (it’s quite nice to be able to pay staff who know wtf they’re on about, for a start).

    From Nick (of Positive).

  • Robert Morgan

    Don’t be so hard on the foundation of our libel laws. They come from a time when if I were to accuse you, right now, of being a gadfly, it would be beholdent on me to demonstrate that vile slur, or be forced to retract it.

    If you think about it, there was nothing topsy turvy about the burden of proof there, it really is innocent until proven guilty. Though it doesn’t sound like it, it’s honour and journalistic standards. Free speech, though, it isn’t.

    The courts can be blamed for allowing too much to be libellous (it seems to me that Singh’s accusation of trading knowingly bogusly – which surely was indeed what Singh was saying – should not be libelous, maybe).

    But mostly, it seems like a law conceived in a different time before the Carter Rucks got hold of it all. To sort that, as Monbiot says, we need politicians.