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.

14 thoughts on “Melanie Phillips and libel

  1. Great piece – keep up the good work. What the Mail did to Rory Weal was beyond pathetic – attacks based on lazy assumptions and a lack of research, then smears and misrepresentations… pretty standard right-wing stuff, obviously, but seeing ‘writers’ like Phillips reduced to such gutter journalism when confronted by what was actually a fairly harmless speech by a teenage boy is incredibly depressing. And rather than defend her writing she plays the libel card. She’s a total embarrassment.

  2. I’d love it if Phillips actually tried to sue a blogger based on nothing more than an inability to handle criticism of any sorts, no matter how well-founded. If it did find its way to court she could only come out of this with egg on her face as her writings were exposed for the unfounded ravings that they are.

    Essentially Phillips is the journalistic equivalent of the playground bully who can dish it out but can’t take it; it’d almost be funny if she weren’t a highly-remunerated employee of an unfathomably popular extremist propaganda rag.

    You also make a good point about the ease of which the rich can shout down the little folk with the threat of legal action; it’s not for nothing that the English courts are famous for libel tourism…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libel_tourism

  3. I found your posts on the matter far more balanced than anything I would have been inclined to write on the subject. That might be surprising considering that I am currently in libel proceedings with someone who took exception to my words.

    But I’m a firm believer in saying what you think so long as it is based on reasonable evidence.

    The reason that the libel laws used to be draconian is because the defence of people commenting honestly about information they were in possession of still seemed to fail. However this was sort of overturned and ‘honest comment’ now has a precedent.

    People like Mel are simply not aware of it which is why they throw these threats around without really considering what they are saying.

  4. Hi.

    First, a small criticism: In your initial quotes of Mel’s response, you’ve edited out one of her sentences; the effect of this is to make her seem even crazier than normal. Without that omission, the passage (which you have linked to) reads:

    “Your blog post about me is highly defamatory and contains false allegations for which you would stand to pay me significant damages in a libel action. There are many things I could say to point out the gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions in what you have written. I will not do so, however, because you have shown gross abuse of trust in publishing on your blog private correspondence from me without my permission. ”

    Based on that, I believe when she says ‘I will not do so’ she means she will not ‘point out the gross misrepresentations […]’ which she claims are present ‘in what you have written.’

    I do not believe she has told you that she will not sue.

    However, I doubt that she will, because there are a couple of things about the libel laws which may well work in your favour.

    I recommend you read up on this subject if you are worried that she might have a case against you. In fact, given the subject matter of this website, I’d suggest you do this urgently.

    *I am not a lawyer.*

    But, from what I understand of the law, Mel’s threats are empty.

    (I’m lazily referring to ‘Gatley on Libel and Slander, 7th Ed.’ It’s old, and the law may have changed, and I’m lazy, so do read up on this stuff yourself.)

    Although the truth is an absolute defence against libel, it is certainly not the only defence.

    The most obvious defence that might apply to this case (assuming for one moment that you are not confident that you could prove the truth of ALL you have written) would be the defence of ‘fair comment on a matter of public interest’.

    For that to work, the matter on which you are commenting has to be one of public interest (I think it probably is). Then, you need to clearly separate, in your writing, statements which you claim as fact, from those which are your own true opinion. (You seem to be doing this quite carefully.) Then, you must be able to show that the stated facts are true, and that the opinion is a ‘fair comment’ based upon those true facts. The opinion must also be honestly held.

    For example, I can point to Mel’s writings, and say ‘based on this evidence, in my opinion, Melanie Philips is both evil and insane.’ This would not be libellous.

    There’s another point you could try: Was what you wrote ‘a defamatory statement’ to begin with? To be defamatory, it would need to impugn Mel’s reputation. Well, does she have a good reputation? A reputation for talking sense? I think you could argue that she does not. (The law is concerned with the opinion of ‘right-thinking members of society generally’ and not, say, the opinion of Daily Mail readers, or of journalists, or Christians.)

    Unfortunately, because you write in all seriousness (which is good) you cannot use the defence that you were speaking ‘in jest’, as comedians and satirists might be able to.

    Now, the question of whether or not she libelled you in her email to you…

    If I understand this correctly, the answer is: no, she did not.

    The truth (or not) of what she actually wrote in this private email to you would be completely irrelevant to her defence (against your hypothetical complaint that she libelled you) because it was YOU that chose to publish that email. Had you not done so, the public would not have had a chance to read it, and therefore their opinion of you could not be changed by it (for good or for ill).

    This makes sense: the fact that you chose to let the public read it in itself suggests that you did not think your reputation would be impugned by publication. (And if you thought it would – you chose to publish it, so you in effect libelled yourself.)

    On the other hand, if Mel had privately written to someone else, and you could show that she should have known that what she wrote would be published, and it was, you *might* have a case for libel, depending on what she actually wrote. But in this instance, it’s probably not worth the hassle.

    I repeat: *I am not a lawyer.*

    But, in my opinion, the law is a lot less crazy that Mel and her fellow hacks at the Mail would have us believe.

  5. There is now a defence of ‘honest comment’ which was brought about as a result of, what I recall, were the Singh/Osler cases.

    Robert Dougans is the man to get in touch with if you are slightly concerned.

    Seems like Mel is just posturing though…

  6. She’s probably had legal advice which has told her she wouldn’t get very far so she believes huffing and puffing and threatening will get the desired result – though what that would be we can only guess, a grovelling apology followed by an announcement of Ms Phillip’s genius, goodness and kindness.

    Sometimes a threat does the job particularly if you don’t have the money, the time or the confidence to fight it. In May this year the organisers of the ‘Radical Media Conference’ were forced, after a letter threatening legal action, to change the name of the conference. By a company that makes adverts. Ah well.

  7. As people have stated above keep up the good work. I have hated this woman ever since I read her truly appaling book Londonistan. One of the most vile and repulsive collection of lies and distortions ever to appear between two pieces of cardboard.

    The truly stupid thing is that to do the basic research that ask for, she would simply have had to read the shit rag that she writes for.

    FWIW. I think people like her and Hitchins only ever go of on hissy fits like this when people have really got to them. If your arguments are so wrong it would be so easy to refute them, but can she,? No. So revert to Hitchin type put downs.

    Thanks for everything you do.

  8. Don’t let the mad old bat intimidate you! Your points are well-researched and argued, so stand your ground. If it comes to it, like Tom above I’d be happy to chip in to a defence fund. I bet there are plenty more who would too – look what a bit of publicity achieved in the Singh case.

  9. Can I thank you for publishing Mel’s own words on Libel law? I had never really agreed with Mad Mel about anything before ever, but you’ve managed to find a few sentences that one can agree with. I can’t face actually reading the whole article, but somehow I doubt it was a cogent examination of the Libel Reform campaign…

  10. I dare say words like ‘gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions’ are just a copy/paste response to any kind of criticism from Daily Mail staff.

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