Daily Archives: September 29, 2011

Melanie Phillips and libel

Melanie Phillips’ second email to me is really quite interesting for such a short piece of writing.

She claims that my blog post is:

highly defamatory and contains false allegations for which you would stand to pay me significant damages in a libel action.

OK, fair enough, so immediately it leads you to think: she is going to sue. However, she doesn’t because:

you have shown gross abuse of trust in publishing on your blog private correspondence from me without my permission.

How is that a good reason not to sue me? Surely this is a further offence that she is clearly annoyed by and would make her more likely to sue me, not less? Anyway, the real crux of the matter is that she felt my blog post concerning her article on Rory Weal contained:

gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions

Because my blog post most certainly does not misrepresent what she said, it certainly isn’t selective in a misleading way (i.e. I only selected her words regarding Rory Weal, but they were most definitely not taken out of context and were quoted in full) and there are no twisted distortions. The reason why I am not guilty of these things is because you just don’t have to do any of these things to make Melanie Phillips look a fool, in fact most of the time you can get that reaction by just quoting her entire column in full or simply linking to it.

My post on Rory Weal was simple, Melanie decided to attack Rory Weal on the premise that Rory Weal’s family had lived off the state – which even she acknowledged was based on an unfounded assumption – she uses an ‘(if true)’ interjection immediately before starting her attack:

what that means (if true) is that his entire life has been spent as a kind of state serf, that he and his family are wholly lacking in independence, that their entire subsistence has been funded by the state. [emphasis is mine]

You do not need ‘gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions’ to demonstrate that Melanie Phillips was guilty of attacking a 16-year-old boy on an assumption that was completely wrong. Rory Weal actually had a very priviledged up-bringing, which Melanie Phillips would have known if instead of writing ‘(if true)’ before starting her rant she actually did even the most basic research.

So, given that Melanie refused to inform me (even though she says she could: ‘There are many things I could say to point out…’) of quite how I was guilty of ‘gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions’ am I now entitled to sue her for libel, given that she would have to then prove that her accusations about my writing were correct?

The trouble with libel law in the UK is that it is requires the person who is accused of libel to prove that they did not in fact write anything libellious. The burden of proof lies with the person being sued and you can never be certain which way the judge will turn in often complex matters where truth itself can be a matter of controversy. Many people have therefore argued that the libel laws in the UK hamper free speech, because people are afraid to challenge powerful organisations for fear of being sued – even if the truth is fundamentally on their side, it doesn’t mean expensive lawyers can’t alter that when it comes to court, or that the truth can’t be deleted or censored by the very threat of legal action.

Indeed I am reminded of some sage words on a famous, fairly recent libel case:

Simon Singh, a science writer, is being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association for describing some of its treatments as ‘bogus’.

And Peter Wilmshurst, a consultant cardiologist, is being sued by a U.S. company, NMT Medical, after he questioned the effectiveness of a new heart implant device…

after raising such matters, serious scientists are being hounded to retract their claims.

Yet science depends upon scientists making such critical observations. Trying to gag them surely amounts to an abuse of the libel law and threatens the very integrity of science itself.

The idea that libel can be used like this to stifle discussion of the possible dangers of medical treatments will strike many as utterly intolerable.

The reason it is happening is that, unlike equivalent laws in other countries against defamation, English libel law is the most draconian in the world.

It doesn’t just hurt the open discussion of scientists either, but anyone who wishes to engage in free debate or exchange of new ideas:

The law of libel has long been the bane of journalists’ lives. But now it has become something altogether more sinister and frightening.

Rather than a form of legal redress for unjustly sullying someone’s reputation, it is increasingly being used by wealthy individuals or organisations as a weapon to stifle politically or commercially unwelcome views.

It is easy for a powerful organisation – the Daily Mail for example – to crush dissent by sending out letters threatening libel action, knowing full well that they will get an immediate retraction most of the time from people who could not afford to fight, let alone lose a libel case. In particular – as I found out – in the UK websites are very vulnerable given that the host is deemed to be the publisher of content so they can therefore be easily threatened and have no interest in defending customers against powerful organisations and will just simply take down a website to be on the safe side.

As the sage person writes:

Because of the difficulty of proving what may be unprovable, those who express such views are intimidated by the prospect of losing such a case – and then having to pay astronomical legal costs to multinationals or wealthy individuals who can afford to keep racking up the final bill.

So scientists, academics, authors, journalists and others are effectively censoring themselves for fear of becoming trapped in a ruinous libel suit – or are being forced to back down and apologise for statements they still believe to be true.

Quite. You’ve probably already guessed the punchline: this sage writer was, of course, Melanie Phillips writing back in 2009 – ‘Death of free speech: Is Britain becoming the censorship capital of the world?‘.

I do live with a certain fear of being sued, not because I set out to libel or defame people, but because people can threaten to sue me to get me to remove / censor my content and even though I endeavour to always write truthfully and to be as accurate as any part-time, tired, limited-time evening writer can be: anyone can make mistakes. However, in this country you don’t even need to be mistaken, you can write what you and many others might consider to be an absolute truth, but truth is a fluid notion that changes from person to person, and perhaps judge to judge so you can still be threatened with libel and have to remove the content to be on the safe side. Would anyone in my position risk everything to fight for a few words that they hold to be true?

As before, I put my words on here to be challenged, argued over, corrected or dismissed. I stand by what I hold to be true, I amend – openly – anything that happens to be wrong. I link to my sources and I quote fairly from the columnists I write about. I do not know if Melanie Phillips will ever read this, but if she does I would really appreciate her pointing out exactly where I was guilty of being ‘defamatory’, what ‘false allegations’ I had made and what parts of my writing were ‘gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions’.

I will happily strike them through and I will issue a grovelling apology if she can demonstrate my guilt.

If, however, Melanie simply threw down the libel card because she couldn’t actually point out anything of the sort then she is indeed a far worse person than I had ever imagined – and a far bigger hypocrite.

And that really is saying something, given my extremely low opinion of her in the first place.