Obscure Religion Blog Hosts A-List Political Brit Bloggers Spat

Sunny Hundal, writing on Liberal Conspiracy in February:

Last week Tuesday Aaron linked to this blog post by Tim Ireland on Bloggerheads…Quick off the mark, although I didn’t read it until much later, I was sent an email by [Paul] Staines threatening to take me to court for the link. He was: “not minded to not pursue this just because you withdraw it at a later date.” That is quite a threat. I was asked to get in touch soon or else. “And I won’t leave the pistol in the holster this time,” he ended.

I cited this incident in a blog entry a few days ago. The blogger Staines (also known as “Guido Fawkes“) left a brief comment:

There was no threat to sue LibCon.

Tim now asks:

C’mon, Guido.

You made the claim. Can you back it up or not?

Sunny has emailed me from the USA to tell me he stands by the story.

“Right to Private Life” Prevents Soca Publicising Criminals

From the Telegraph:

The leaders of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) have been “deeply frustrated” after lawyers advised them not to name 39 convicted criminals because it would breach the convicts’ right to a family and private life, and could amount to an “unfair” punishment.

…However, lawyers advised that a precedent set by a 2003 test case involving Essex Police meant that the criminals could not be named.

An agency spokeswoman said: “Soca is not entitled to punish and, where there have been no media reports of financial reporting order cases [which require offenders to provide monthly details of their bank accounts], the information cannot properly be said to be in the public domain.

“The information would therefore only become known to the public in this context due to the actions of Soca and we consider that, in unreported cases at least, there would be an interference with Article Eight rights.”

Two cases already reported by the media were allowed to be revealed.

Soca wished to publicise the criminals’ names so that “the public could inform the police if they suspected they were engaged in illicit activity which was not being declared”.

This advice seems to me to be bizarre. How can be it be allowed for “the media” to publicise the identities of criminals but not someone else? Also, Soca has provided a motivation other than “to punish”, while in contrast we all know that some newspapers are motivated by a punitive spirit – just yesterday I blogged on Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre’s claim that

Since time immemorial public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour…For hundreds of years, the press has played a role in that process.

“Acceptable social behaviour” clearly includes refraining from criminality. And what counts as “the media”? There was a case a few months ago in which a controversial right-wing blogger was found guilty of drink-driving; he was also pilloried by other bloggers, and one even went along to the court to see for himself. The case was also reported in some newspapers; but what if it hadn’t been? Would the bloggers (presuming they found out about it by other means) who mocked and scorned him be regarded as “the media”, or as having breached his right to a family and private life and so liable for hefty damages?

There is already a limitation on reporting criminal convictions in the UK – in 1974 it was legislated that to disclose a “spent conviction” (an old minor conviction that had been removed from someone’s record after a period of time) could be libellous if “malice” could be proven as the motive. I’ve yet to find any actual libel case which has followed from this; this means it remains unclear how “malice” can be proven or disproven, or what exactly “disclosure” means when the media may have put information about a case in the public domain at the time of conviction – perhaps nationally and very prominently – or when the offence was some kind of public protest.

I discussed my own views on the right to privacy vs the right to free speech in a blog posting here. Although I’m not usually much of fan of his, I commended an essay on the subject by the right-libertarian Sean Gabb.

Libel News from the Eye

A couple of bits of libel news in latest Private Eye (1223). First, an article (p. 26) that gives a bit more background to the New Statesman‘s decision to remove a blog posting that linked to suppressed articles about Iraqi billionaire Nadhmi Auchi reposted on Wikileaks, and to offer a public confession of the linked articles’ inaccuracy (I blogged on this here):

The American journalists who run Wikileaks checked out the Auchi story before putting it on their site. They watched the censorship in London in amazement and decided to act. According to a letter seen by Index on Censorship, they tell Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, that any apology suggesting the reports contained “substantial inaccuracies” would be libellous. “Such a statement will defame the professionalism of our investigative reportes and writers,” they wrote. “These include editor Julian Assange and former Pentagon aide John Shaw”.

If this succeeds, it would mean that caving in to a libel threat would no longer be the cheapest option, with the result that the British media would be obliged to show a bit more backbone. However, while I can appreciate Wikileaks‘ intent, this seems to me ill-conceived, as I noted before. If I say that a certain book contains inaccuracies, does that mean that anyone who gave the same book a good review can now sue me on the grounds that I have “defamed their professionalism” by offering a contrary opinion? Or if someone writes inaccuracies about me (whether libellous or not), will I risk being sued simply for daring to put the record straight publicly, if I cannot prove my version of events? The report continues:

Anthony Julius, of Princess Diana fame, has offered his services free to journalists who are sued by Auchi or feel the need to protect their reputations by suing the Observer, the New Statesman or anyone else.

A second report in the Eye (p. 6) deals with another aspect of UK libel law: the absurd size of the costs involved. Recently the Guardian was forced to pay a out small amount in damages due to inaccuracies in a report about Tesco (as I blogged here) – according to the Eye “thought to be no more than £5,000”. However, the paper has also been presented with a bill from Tesco’s lawyers’ (the notorious Carter-Ruck) for £800,000:

On 22 April, for instance, Nigel Tait made £100 by “watching item on Channel 4 News“. On 12 June he spent 12 minutes “reading/considering” an article in the Eye, which earned him another £100…One item in the £808,000 bill reads “Purchase of Guardian newspaper, 80p”.

There was also the advice of a barrister, worth exactly “£94,00.01”.