Thursday, July 06, 2006

The times have changed for British Blogs

I am pleased for Guido Fawkes and Iain Dale whose contribution to the sum of human knowledge about the odious Prescott is being widely acknowledged. I am also worried. Prescott's friends are urging him, it has been reported, to sue them and have their sites closed down.

Britain's libel laws have a chilling effect on public debate. People long knew that Robert Maxwell was a criminal, for example. As a new young partner, I introduced one of his companies to my old law firm as a client. I was rewarded with an immediate visit from the Senior Partner to praise my efforts and good intentions but to tell me never to accept such an instruction again. "Don't quote me," I was told, "but he's an utter crook". This was years before his watery end.

Maxwell was an enthusiastic litigator, bringing libel actions at the slightest provocation, putting his accusers to the proof and gleefully perjuring himself in his own "defence". He managed to silence almost all public criticism. Lord Archer also perjured himself in a libel action, forcing a newspaper to retract a true story and pay him damages. It was for that perjury that he eventually went to jail.

If the wealthy supporters of Labour choose to fund actions against bloggers, it will not matter if they wrote the truth or not. It will only matter if they can prove it. The best defence to defamation is "justification" - i.e. that the statement complained of was true. Against politicians there is a more useful defence, that the statement (if not true) was "fair comment on a matter of public interest". Much as I hope they will long continue, I am not sure that some of the more exuberant and entertaining blogs would be considered by juries to be making "fair comment". Whatever the rights and wrongs, many bloggers would be hard pressed to meet the costs of defending such actions, for which no legal aid is available.

I fear the glory days of British political blogging may be over. I doubt if even Prescott is daft enough to sue on an allegation which he has failed to deny, despite being given ample opportunity. However, when Guido's readership passed that of Private Eye, he became the sort of target that the Eye has long been.

Only the authentically poor can afford to say what they please. Those with assets and families to support must be careful.


ContraTory said...

An example will be made of either Guido Fawkes or Iain Dale by someone, sooner or later. Much is made by each of them about their blogs being "out of the jurisdiction" but as they live in the UK, I cannot see what protection that accords them, in real terms.

JohnJo said...

I found myself getting half way through writing a similar article yesterday but then deleting it. I'm not sure why, perhaps I didn't want to tempt fate. Let's hope things do not work out that way.

JohnJo said...

You get a mention here Tom.