Guardian Libel News Double Whammy

A couple of interesting free speech cases concerning the Guardian newspaper. Hold the Front Page noted a couple of days ago:

Amid the UN Committee on Human Rights’ recent criticism of our claimant-friendly libel laws, it is reassuring to see judges taking a robust line against dubious claims…Tesco brought libel and malicious falsehood claims against The Guardian and its editor over reports about alleged (but strenuously denied) corporation tax avoidance.

The Guardian accepted inaccuracies in its original report, although its apology seems a bit tongue-in-cheek:

‘The original Guardian articles did not correctly explain the effect of Tesco’s tax schemes. It was wrong to state that they were designed to avoid corporation tax. It would have been correct to refer to avoiding SDLT [Stamp Duty Land Tax].

‘As a result, the figure of “up to £1bn” – calculated as the amount which could have been saved on the disposal of £5bn of property – is wrong. The loss to the exchequer is likely to be nearer the region of £90m-£100m,’ the paper said.

Despite making an “Offer of Amends” regarding the libel claim, Tesco pressed on with the “malicious falsehood” claim. Mr Justice Eady (who has a mixed record on free-speech friendly judgements), though, was not impressed; as Hold the Front Page reports, he

…imposed a ‘stay’ on the malicious falsehood claim as it had no “substantive or legitimate purpose”.

He said the court must focus on the “real issues between the parties…There is no right to plead a cause of action just because it exists.

“The court is there to do justice…Litigation is no longer intended to be regarded as a game for lawyers; it is a means provided by the state of achieving justice for the parties.”

It looks as though those planning to bring dubious suits in the future may receive short shrift, both as regards libel actions and as regards other claims made strategically either in lieu of or alongside libel accusations. 

And today, the Guardian reports that another libel case against it has been dropped:

Matthias Rath, the vitamin campaigner accused of endangering thousands of lives in South Africa by promoting his pills while denouncing conventional medicines as toxic and dangerous, has dropped a year-long libel action against the Guardian and been ordered to pay costs.

Rath sued over three Guardian articles that condemned his promotional activities among Aids sufferers in South African townships.

Rath sought to have part of one of the articles excluded from the court’s consideration; he apparently backed down when the court refused to accept this. Costs awarded to the Guardian amount to £220,000, and I’ll be interested to see whether Rath pays up or pleads bankruptcy; it seems to me grotesque an innocent defendant can end up out-of-pocket thanks to a plaintiff being unable to make good all the needless expense he or she has caused.

Meanwhile, Simon Singh is still facing a libel threat aimed at him personally for pieces published in the Guardian concerning the British Chiropractic Association.

And Tesco is still, so far as I know, pursuing aggressive libel suits against journalists in Thailand.