Carter-Ruck Go After Wikileaks as UK Discusses Libel Reform

Wikileaks has published a “Strictly Private and Confidential” letter it has received from British libel specialists Carter-Ruck concerning its re-publication of newspaper articles Nadhmi Auchi. However, I wouldn’t advise linking to it or discussing it too freely; it includes the warning that Wikileaks is “incurring liability” for hyperlinking to a Pentagon Report which has been “discredited” and to an article origjnally published in the Washington Times.

Carter-Ruck warns Wikileaks that unless it removes the offending material, Auchi “reserves the right” to bring a libel action in England. In some ways it would be nice to finally have a case which establishes once and for all whether hyperlinking does indeed incur liability, or whether an English High Court judge can grasp the technical pointlessness of such a restriction (except when a url itself contains a libellous statement). It would also be a good chance for the USA to showcase its new legal protections for US-based writers and publishers facing British libel actions.

Meanwhile, calls for libel law reform in the UK are getting louder, despite my pessimism of just a few days ago; today there was an adjournment debate in the House of Commons. Liberal Conspiracy reports:

The debate was initiated by Labour MP Denis MacShane, with support from Lib Dem Norman Lamb and Tory Michael Gove, (Gove is, of course, still a working journalist for the Times, and Denis MacShane is a former officer of the National Union of Journalists who regularly writes in the national media.

MacShane expressed his concern over libel tourism, which he described as ‘an international scandal which shames Britain’. He also proposed a ‘small claims court’ system for libel which would limit the amounts of fees totted up by lawyers in defamation cases, saying ‘the object [of defamation proceedings] is to gain correction and an apology, not to create a racket for lawyers’.

The idea of libel being settled as a “small claim” is one that I have strongly advocated. Another crucial reform, it seems to me, is to introduce a “public figure” distinction, as exists in the USA. This would include the sub-definition of “limited-purpose public figure”, who

is one who (a) voluntarily participates in a discussion about a public controversy, and (b) has access to the media to get his or her own view across.

That’s important for investigating the backgrounds of those involved in politics and political activism; it is unacceptable that someone who shoots off in a public debate on a subject can suppress discussion of controversial politically-related events in their past, as has happened more than once in the UK over the last couple of years.

Hopefully someone will raise these issues at the up-coming English PEN and Index on Censorship public inquiry into libel legislation.

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  1. […] to the BBC as evidence of Sweeney’s bias (the photo was sent via Carter-Ruck, the UK’s most notorious and aggressive libel […]

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