The libel laws in Britain were originally constructed to protect the nobility and gentry from tales told by their servants. As such they are engineered to be very difficult and expensive to defend. The plaintiff can (and usually does) list large numbers of spurious complaints and it is up to the defendant to disprove every single one in court, the plaintiff does not have to prove anything. So defending a case typically costs several hundreds of thousand of pounds because barristers think that their time is worth huge amounts of money.
Our libel laws are immensely repressive of free speech, they are among the most repressive in the world, far stricter than in most dictatorships. This has made London the libel capital of the world where rich people come from many countries to punish their critics.
Which brings us to reputation management. For every libel case that reaches the court there are thousands of threatening letters sent out, often these are totally spurious like the one above, sent to me. The article I wrote that this letter is about was totally factual and is still published, unedited. However for most the threat contained in these letters of hundreds of thousand of pounds in legal costs forces them to censure what they have written. In fact the letters are often sent to the internet service provider hosting the article because they are the publisher. So the article will be taken down without the author having any say in the matter. This is why I don’t host my websites in England.
So the libel law in England is more often abused to suppress free speech than it is to protect a person’s reputation. The severity of the law and the way it is used has several consequences:
- Nefarious characters who the public should know about and be protected from can hide their activities behind solicitors and barristers.
- Scientists who do bad work sue their critics thus propagating bad science.
- The police federation act vigorously against any criticism of policemen. So bad coppers are protected.
- Stupid and dubious medical methods can be protected from criticism.
There is much, much more. But you get the idea. Rich people routinely abuse our system to prevent free speech and we are all far worse off as a result. One answer would be for plaintiffs to actually have to prove their case in law. Another would be for judges to award damages to the defendant for spurious claims. And best of all solicitors sending out spurious threatening letters should receive massive fines. The coalition government has promised reform and there is considerable activism to make this happen, it is desperately needed.
And then it gets worse, judges have been making up law based on the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 provides the right to freedom of expression, subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. This right includes the freedom to hold opinions, and to receive and impart information and ideas. So you would think that this guarantees our freedom of speech. But no, because Article 8 provides a right to respect for one’s “private and family life, his home and his correspondence”. So you can see that these two Articles can be, and often are, in direct conflict with each other and open to the interpretation of the courts. And when it comes to rich people with expensive lawyers the judges have come down very firmly against freedom of speech.
Today it is believed that there are between 30 and 50 super injunctions in force that allow celebrities to manipulate what the public know of them, they use their money to ensure that we know the good stuff but aren’t allowed to know the bad stuff. So it was great that Twitter was used to blow this right open. We now know that a profane celebrity chef “sexually harassed a female employee and sacked a male chief executive for no reason, he is still owed wages” and that the national buffoon “has an injunction preventing the publication or mention of intimate photographs of him and Jemima Khan”. The last of these is very strongly denied.
Which brings us to the rich and famous Max Mosley. So rich that he can afford a whole team of sado-masochistic prostitutes. When a newspaper reported this Max sued and the newspaper lost, Mr Justice Eady saying that Max could expect privacy for consensual sexual activities. This changed the attitudes of the English courts very much against free speech. Max then went on a campaign to further protect privacy, culminating with today losing in the European court of human rights. Maybe the tide is starting to turn.
Of course the English tabloid newspaper are awful, they are in business to sell newspapers and they know that the public are hungry to pay for salacious gossip about celebrities. So this is what they provide, going to great lengths to dig up the dirt and often just making it up. They self regulate with the Press Complaints Commission, but this does not prevent editors knowingly publishing a pack of lies in order to sell more newspapers. “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story” is the creed of the tabloid press, any sensible person does not believe a word they print. The celebrities and the tabloid papers often deserve each other.
As a libertarian I am massively against censorship and massively for free speech so the current situation with the libel laws and with the way that judges are interpreting the European Convention on Human Rights is a total anathema. Currently our democratic rights are denied us by rich people who abuse the legal system to manipulate what we are allowed to know. The is utterly wrong and whilst Twitter has shown the law to be an ass it really is no substitute for making the law far less repressive.