a little freedom

IN these lean times, anything you can get for nothing is worth hanging on to. Take speaking. Talk is cheap, but speech is free. Or so we’re told.

One of the many excuses for self-congratulation in this country has always been our freedom to say whatever we like, so long as it’s not racist. We invented Speaker’s Corner after all, in the days when soap still came in boxes!  Mark, Lenin and Engels all vented their spleen here, and there used to be other Speaker’s Corners in Kennington, Clapham and Hackney too. (It has been argued, notably by Clare Short shortly after she became an ex-member of Tony Blair’s cabinet, that we’re free to say whatever we like because the government doesn’t bother to listen. Two words: ‘Iraq War’  Res ipsa loquitur as we used to quip in Ancient Rome.)

But we also invented a legal system that’s made us the tourist destination of the world for people wanting to muzzle writers, and sue the Brionis off newspaper magnates.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is ‘the freedom to receive and impart information and ideas, without interference by public authority, and regardless of frontiers.’ Nevertheless governments and plutocrats, from Ukraine to Iceland, flock to English libel courts to silence their critics. One unfortunate novelist was sued for accidentally inventing a character who resembled a real person. The real person sued. The publisher paid up, and the book was pulped. Alexei Sayle won a similar case, but didn’t get his costs back. ‘It would have been cheaper if I’d just stabbed the fucker’ he said.

How have things got to this point? Libel law, like so many hallowed British traditions, turns out to have been invented by the rich to clobber everybody else. By 1372 it was already ‘tolerably frequent’, apparently – I guess that depends on your definition of what’s tolerable. The grand tradition continues, with the result that, according to a study by Oxford University,  it’s one hundred and forty times more expensive to sue for libel in England and Wales than the European average. Result; only rich people can afford to get involved in a libel suit. (Just for a change) Everybody else runs scared.

One reason why it’s so hard to fight is because it’s the only bit of English law where you’re presumed guilty, not innocent, until proven otherwise. The reputation of the defendant is apparently more important than free speech. So the burden is on the person being sued, to prove that what they said was true, and/or in the public interest. And, as usual, the lawyers come out of it best.

But the main reason people come here is the ‘no win, no fee’ system. Lawyers take on cases knowing that if they win, they can demand up to a hundred times in fees what their client will get in damages; plaintiffs are risking nothing. In fact, just a lawyer’s letter is often enough to shut up the defendant. Especially if that defendant is an NGO battling to raise the money just to carry on doing its work.

And naturally, a place where you can threaten anybody who says things you don’t like, with a lawsuit they can’t afford to defend, has a lot going for it. Libel tourism is now just another branch on the spreading oak of legendary English hospitality (Did you know there was a special English for people working in the tourist industry? And no, ‘I’m on my break’ isn’t part of it).

The allegation doesn’t have to be made in a British publication, nor even one widely read here. It just has to be potentially available. An American academic (with a degree from Hebrew University) was sued in London (by a Moslem sheikh, but I am NOT jumping to any conclusions here) over allegations in her book, ‘Funding Evil’ (ooh, I wonder what that was about?) – of which only twenty-three copies were even in the country. The lawyers still took the money, and the courts heard the case. Now the Americans have had to pass their own laws, defending their own citizens against the effects of our justice system, operating thousands of miles from where they are.

But, although this is one area where we appear still to be world leaders, we’re not alone in our enthusiasm to muzzle criticism and debate. And not just about individuals, or people who are actually alive. In Switzerland you can be prosecuted for saying the 1915 Armenian massacre was not genocide ; in Turkey for saying it was. But at least those countries only prosecute people who made the allegations on their turf We’re not so squeamish here.

And what about the Web? Phew, there’s a migraine in the making. Who’s responsible for what’s published there? Anybody can say anything – how groovy is that? But, as usual, there’s a fuzzy end to this lollypop; anybody can also see what they’ve said. It’s a lot easier for governments and political parties to keep an eye on opponents and dissidents when their stuff is online, than when it’s on twenty copies of a samizdat  free sheet, or an underground zine. And if that anybody doesn’t like it, they can come down pretty hard and fast. Two more words: ‘China’ and ‘Yahoo’ It’s a mess, and one thing is sure; sorting it out can only mean more money for the lawyers.

Of course, it could be argued that in some respects a free press can be a bad thing, at least when grabbing headlines takes precedence over what might happen next. Do the journalists who rush to publicise any wobble in the climate change data care that as a result, only one in four people in this country now thinks it’s a real problem? So much for all the government’s painstaking work to build public support.

And does the Daily Telegraph really believe that it’s the MPs who destroyed our faith in politics, when under all the shouting, their venality averages out at three thousand pounds a head? Might the newspaper itself not be a teeny bit responsible, when at the next election even more people think, ‘What’s the point in voting?’

Meanwhile, next time you read a paper, or watch the news, or google on the InterWeb, remember to think about not just what is there, but what isn’t – and why.