Free Speech Withers: Libel Threat Against ISP Used to Pull Tory MP’s Blog

Tory MP Nadine Dorries is currently in the news due to comments on her blog complaining that MPs were the victims of a “McCarthyite witchhunt” over their expenses: an opinion which has embarrassed David Cameron. She has also attacked the motives of the Telegraph‘s owners, David and Frederick and Barclay, despite the fact that the Barclays (invariably described by Private Eye as the “weirdo Barclay twins”) are notoriously aggressive in using libel law to protect their reputations, and true to form, Dorries’ blog has now been removed. The Guardian reports:

Nadine Dorries, the Conservative frontbencher who claimed the Daily Telegraph’s revelations on expenses could drive MPs to suicide, has had her blog shut down by lawyers acting for the newspaper…The newspaper is understood to have acted after she made further allegations concerning the motivation of the newspaper’s proprietors, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay. Withers, the lawyers acting for the Barclay brothers, are understood to have instructed the takedown, invoking the acceptable user policy used by internet service providers to protect themselves against libel action provoked by comments on websites they host.

Tory blogger Iain Dale is on the case:

Can it really now be illegal or libellous to question a newspaper’s agenda and motives, or those of its owners? Is it really illegal to accuse someone of a witchhunt? I don’t happen to think that the Telegraph is undertaking a witchhunt, but I can quite see why some MPs do. Those who believe Nadine’s main accusation, which is that the Telegraph has an agenda to boost UKIP and the BNP, may, at first sight, have their views reinforced by this morning’s edition which has a lengthy profile of UKIP leader Nigel Farage. Reading it, however, it’s not quite the paen of praise it might first appear.

Internet Service Providers needs to develop some cojones in the face of legal threats from big companies. If this had been an American ISP they would have probably laughed at the letter sent by the Telegraph.

Alas, this is an obtuse reaction: an accusation that the Telegraph‘s owners want to boost UKIP merely imputes political bias, but to suggest support for the rascist BNP is in a different order. And if American ISPs are more robust, it’s because American libel law allows them to be so, not because they have more “cojones”.

Despite this, though, I do agree that the forced removal of Dorries blog is unacceptable, and Telegraph-hosted bloggers ought to feel embarrassed at having the paper’s masthead on their sites. If someone has just cause to complain they have been libelled, they should see the author in court, not threaten the ISP to have critical material removed.

Further, it seems to me that we need a “public figure” provision in British libel law, along American lines. If someone thrusts themselves into a public controversy, it should be allowable to discuss their backgrounds and to speculate on their possible motives freely, short of “actual malice”. Dorries did not suggest she has any real evidence of a BNP link, which could be disputed in a court – she was simply sounding off about the facts in the public domain about a matter of public interest, and any reasonable reader can judge for themselves whether her analysis deserves to be taken seriously. It’s annoying when reprehensible motives are unfairly imputed to a person’s writings or actions (in particular, the charge of “racism” is bandied about on-line immoderately), but the bar for a libel action should be considerably higher than this.

Incidentally, if Dale really wants to protect free speech, he could have a word with some of his Tory libertarian friends – often they are most enthusiastic users of libel law to suppress public discussion.

(Hat tip: Harry’s Place)

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