Andrew Morton on UK Libel Law and his Cruise Biography

While we’re on the subject of libel, British journalist Andrew Morton has been pondering the UK fate of his Tom Cruise biography:

It is for sale in Vietnam, Serbia and China – not countries known for allowing free of expression. Yet in Britain it cannot be sold because of my country’s repressive legal system. The gagging of freedom of speech and expression in Britain and the willingness of judges to pay huge settlements to plaintiffs means that Britain is a haven for libel tourists and sharp lawyers. In an increasingly flat world where information is freely available to the rest of the world apart from Britain this will be a growing problem for authors and publishers.

I noted in January, there is also no Australian edition due to libel fears, and the Australian bookshop chain Angus & Robertson has declined to stock the US edition (although Private Eye suggests that this may be because the Murdoch family, which owns the stores, has links to Scientologist and Cruise friend James Packer).

Morton’s lament is of course very familiar; Britain’s excessive and punitive libel laws have been a problem for decades, yet despite the many complaints very little gets done. A few cases have established precedents that favour free speech, such as the 2002 case I mentioned yesterday, but the stakes are so high that it is usually more prudent to practice self-censorship (as I have done a couple of times) or for a defendant in a case to concede as quickly as possible.

Another option is to take up residence in New York State, where the recent Libel Terrorism Protection Act allows “New York’s courts to declare that a foreign judgment was unenforceable if the courts decided that the libel laws in foreign jurisdictions did not protect freedom of speech and the press to the same extent as the laws in New York and the US.” This was passed after an American author who had written on Saudi links to terrorism was sued for libel in the London High Court (as I blogged here), and the Act’s somewhat over-dramatic name doubtless reflects the US right’s notion that the problem is about the “appeasement of radical Islam” (see details of this conference for an example) rather than a more general issue of attempts by the rich and powerful (or in some cases simply the cranky) to silence critics and dissuade overcurious researchers.

It is certainly tempting to concur with the inference of the Act’s name that those who threaten or bring libel actions simply to suppress legitimate free expression and inquiry are engaging in a kind of terrorism against the values of an open society, but there is also a risk of trivialisation: excessive libel threats may make us fearful to write what we know we should have the right to express, but the devestation wrought by terrorist violence (both as regards its victims and the effects on societies where it occurs) is hardly comparable. However, whatever its name and the motives of its drafters, the Act represents a bit of progress.

(Morton link hat tip to Cult News Network)