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.

Corporal Jones

Considering that the Daily Mail regularly publishes the robust views of its highly paid writers it seems strange that the newspaper and its readers seem so averse to any robust views directed at it. The recent attempt to make me delete an old blog post simply because it was 2nd in the Google rankings for ‘Paul Dacre’ has led to other mildly interesting discoveries.

Firstly, I had never realised that the Daily Mail and Paul Dacre Wikipedia entries were so closely guarded by an editor called ‘Christian1985‘ who is a self-confessed fan of the Mail and Mail on Sunday – writing here:

The Mail on Sunday is my favourite sunday paper, I couldn’t live without it. I don’t believe in the biased derogatory stereotypes about Mail readers. I may be a right wing Conservative supporter, but I feel the accusations made against Mail readers are unfounded and unfair. I am also a very young Mail reader. I am a 21 year old student and have read the MoS since I was about 16. It is a fantastic paper in my view.

So, just the sort of neutral person you want editing Wikipedia pages on the Daily Mail and Paul Dacre. For what it’s worth he has received a lot of criticism for constantly (and dubiously) editing the Daily Mail Wikipedia page – criticism he brushes off by claiming that he is merely defending the page from ‘bias’ and ‘smears’. Someone had added a new section to the Paul Dacre Wikipedia page concerning the ongoing legal threats being made against me. No surprises that this was removed almost immediately by Christian1985 who had this to say about my blog:

I think it is the biggest load of crap I have ever seen and I am entitled to that view. I think it is a junk site…

So, a section on censorship and libel law (something that Paul Dacre has strong views on) is itself censored by a Daily Mail fan – even though the edit linked to Roy Greenslade’s piece on his Guardian blog which is classed as a reputable source by Wikipedia (blogs are not – in the eyes of Wikipedia the Daily Mail, Daily Express, The Sun and even Daily Sport are all concerned reputable sources merely because they publish a print edition – no actual quality assessment is made). I think it is also an interesting example of confirmation bias. Most of my media articles are fairly well sourced but they can be dismissed as junk out of hand just because they happen to be critical of something this editor happens to be a fan of.

In the words of Corporal Jones: ‘They don’t like it up ’em’.*

* Richard Littlejohn manages to cram Dad’s Army into his columns every other week, so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

Also, here is the updated ‘Paul Dacre’ search result:

Paul Dacre will die

Abuse and defamation, part 2

So, I’ve heard back from the lawyers representing Associated Newspapers and it turns out they’re not satisfied with the action I have taken so far (see here and here for the full background). You see, although I deleted the original post and replaced it with a short explanation as to why – in which I was very careful not to be at all defamatory – what the lawyers really want me to do is change the title of the post and the meta description. This is because when you type ‘Paul Dacre’ into Google you currently get this as the second result:

Paul Dacre must dieNow, Roy Greenslade believed that Paul Dacre would have had no knowledge of the legal action being taken in order to remove the ‘seriously abusive and defamatory’ material about him. Obviously I have no way of knowing either way, but what is clear is that the lawyers do not want anyone searching for ‘Paul Dacre’ on Google to be greeted by my considered musings on him. The lawyers have therefore contacted my webhosts for a second time, this time stating that:

We note the page has changed which we are looking into. In the meantime the title and meta description of the site still seriously defames our client.

We require that this be changed as a matter of urgency.

As many people have pointed out: the title and meta description (whilst abusive and arguably completely tasteless / out of order etc) is in no way defamatory of Paul Dacre. It kind of staggers me that they are still claiming otherwise. In defence of my webhost, they are in a tough position, they don’t like asking me to edit this post, but at the same time the lawyers are leaning on them with the threat of legal action if I don’t.

The worst thing is that as the author I have had no direct contact with the lawyers (I don’t even know their name) taking umbrage with my words and my request for a contact email address for them has been turned down by my webhosts – although they have offered to pass on my email address to the lawyers. It is plain to see that the UK system of libel law is completely broken when it comes to Internet content. My webhosts did not write, edit, publish or even know about the existence of that post. They were my words, chosen by me, published by me and I should be responsible for defending them. Any defamation or abuse or offense was caused by me and should be answered by me.

Therefore, the lawyers should be required to contact me as the person solely responsible for that content (as in the US). Instead – and this really works in the favour of the financially powerful – they can simply send a nonsensically vague threat to a webhost who doesn’t have anything invested in the post or the subject who will simply ask the end user to remove it in order to avoid being sued (no matter how unlikely or unrealistic this outcome is). They can just claim defamation where none exists and they know the webhost is highly unlikely to call their bluff. Essentially the rich and powerful media organisation can silence any UK hosted blogger without even needing to contact them directly.

Isn’t this an awful long way away from what the Press Complaints Commission is able to do when it comes to real defamation carried out by newspapers? Indeed, the Daily Mail have editorialised in the past about the importance of separating the PCC and indeed newspapers from any being on the wrong end of any kind of legal restraint or financial punishment:

The all-party Commons Culture Committee report is to be commended for accepting that self-regulation is the best way of policing Britain’s newspapers and for identifying many of the threats to Press freedom.

These include the scandalous fees charged by lawyers in no-win no-fee cases, the libel tourism that stains the reputation of British justice abroad, and the Kafkaesque world of secret super-injunctions.

True, we disagree with the MPs’ suggestion that the Press Complaints Commission should impose fines on errant newspapers.

This would inevitably involve lawyers and result in protracted, expensive disputes rather than the quick, cheap service the Commission now provides

Indeed, Paul Dacre has argued that no-win no-fee lawyers are extremely damaging to press freedom because it encourages people to sue newspapers for recourse rather than seeking out the useless PCC (although Dacre laughably argues that ‘self-regulation is the most potent form of regulation’). Dacre argued that the Conditional Fee Agreement system was being ‘ruthlessly exploited by unscrupulous lawyers’ and as reported by the Press Gazette:

He said the risk of being faced with a huge costs bill had forced newspapers to be more risk-averse. CFAs, he said, were a “lethal weapon in crushing press freedom”.

“Every day we are not going quite as far as we used to and we are settling things even at the expense of paying disporportionately high damages not to go to court,” Dacre said.

“The problem is the provincial press – they do not have the money to do any of this. The money we could lose in one case could bankrupt a provincial newspaper chain.”

And here I am, so powerless in the face of a legal action threatening my webhost that I cannot even be in the position to be bankrupted by an unnecessary libel case because they won’t even contact or sue me directly. My freedom is being crushed by forces I cannot even engage with. Even if I had the honour of being directly sued then Associated Newspapers know full well that I don’t have the funds to pay for a lawyer to defend me and I certainly could not afford to lose.

If Paul Dacre does know anything about this case – or he finds out about it somehow – then if he doesn’t tell the lawyers to back off then he could be accused of acting with astonishing hypocrisy. Unless, of course, you look at what Paul Dacre has said in the past about Conditional Fee Agreements (the no-win no-fee system) and believe that his problem with such a system is not its impact on freedom of speech, but rather that it effectively enables – for the first time – ordinary people the chance to take newspapers to court for libel because they can afford to lose (as the lawyers take on the financial risk rather than the client). This means that the little guy can bite back for a change, which is obviously bad for an industry that repeatedly makes stuff up about people. If this is his viewpoint then of course he is going to have no qualms sending in the kind of lawyers who he might describe – when acting on behalf of the little guy – as ‘rapacious… greedy, I think they are unscrupulous.’

CFAs are only really bad because perhaps the Daily Mail thinks that only the rich and powerful have the right to intimidate people and ‘crush’ freedoms?

Anyway. I have decided to amend the title of the troubled blog post and change the meta description to something I hope the lawyers find acceptable:

Paul Dacre will die

Paul Dacre will one day die. When this day comes, we can finally write what we like about him.

No defamation – not even any abuse – just statements of fact. If they do not find this acceptable I will consider switching my hosting to the US, putting the original blog post back up with the original title and meta description and I will then wait for the lawyers of Associated Newspapers to contact me directly.

[PS: any donations gratefully accepted]

Richard Littlejohn libels Julian Assange

At the start of his column today he writes:

This may seem like a silly question, but what is ­Julian Assange doing in Britain? He is an Australian who has been hacking into American government computers from a bunker in Sweden…

Oh dear, Wikileaks is an organisation that receives information and publishes it. They are not hackers, nor is Julian Assange being accused by anyone of hacking anything – let alone ‘American government computers’. Can Julian Assange please sue the Daily Mail. If he needs money for a good lawyer I’m sure plenty of people would be happy to donate to the cause.