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A call for help

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Miserable Old Fart in appeal

Two items in the news and the blogosphere today ought to catch our attention and both revolve around some of the ancient anomalies in this country’s libel laws.

First off, and following the blogosphere’s reaction to the attempted stifling of free speech by Alisher Usmanov and Schillings last year, and threats of legal action against Tim Ireland (a rather silly spat that ran too far), Miserable Old Fart prods a number of us to support the case of Kezia Duggdale who posted an article based around a news story about Noor Hanif, daughter of the suspended SNP councillor Jahangir Hanif (you can read the full story in the comments of Miserable Old Fart’s post.)

In a nutshell Kezia has been forced to remove her post under threat of legal action from the said SNP councillor, a millionaire property developer.

Once again we see the power of those with larger pockets being used to stifle and suppress free speech on the issuing of a 15 minute ultimatum from a firm of expensive solicitors. there are those amongst us who can ill afford to even challenge these edicts, unless some kind lawyer decides to ride to our aid on a white charger with an offer of gratis assistance, the law is loaded in favour of those who have the means and money to pull the correct levers, and it is true that I have come close to being in a very similar situation to Kezia. So on this occasion I must lend my support, particularly as yet again we find that

“that there are no actual libel proceedings, and no Court Order for the lawyers to enforce, only the threat of expensive legal action and general hassle, being used to silence.”

It is not often that I agree with the sentiments of George Monbiot, but he has a very pertinent article in The Guardian today illustrating the veritable nonsense surrounding libel and defamation laws in the UK, permit me to quote from it;

England’s defamation laws date back to a statute created in 1275. The criminal offence of scandalum magnatum was devised to protect “the great men of the realm” from stories which could stir the people against them. Three centuries later, the Star Chamber allowed noblemen to launch civil actions for libel, to provide them with an alternative to duelling.

They made prolific use of this privilege until Fox’s Libel Act of 1792 determined that the claimant (the person bringing the case) had to prove that the words used against him were false, malicious and damaging. This means that libel law 216 years ago was more liberal and more in tune with the principle of free speech than it is today.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Robertson and Nicol show, “the common law was re-fashioned to serve the British class system from the perspective of … the Victorian club”. To protect wealthy people from criticism, the courts reversed Fox’s burden of proof. They created a presumption that any derogatory remark made about a gentleman must be false. This remains the case today. Defamation differs from all other civil or criminal laws in Britain: the burden of proof is on the defendant.

The law remains the privilege of gentlemen, by which I mean people who are able to afford costs that often exceed £1m on each side. Cases tend to be resolved by sheer financial might, as the plaintiffs bankrupt the defendants, or force them to give in before their money runs out. This ensures that the law retains its 13th-century function. It guarantees that most attempts to hold the wealthy to account founder before they are launched, as people bite their tongues for fear of losing their homes.

Monbiot’s article puts Sheffield Wednesday football club and it’s directors under the spotlight as he highlights the inequalities under the law when cases of defamation and libel escalate to the courts and are founded on little more than corporate or personal bullying, of the type currently being suffered by Noor Hanif and Kezia Duggdale. I exhort you to lend your support. The anonymous commenter in Miserable Old Fart’s post says;

You could be next, unless and until the wretched libel laws in the UK and “rich man’s justice” are utterly reformed.

Monbiot takes up the flag with greater vigour:

This autumn the English branch of PEN, which defends the freedom to write, will launch a campaign against our libel law. But where are the rest of you? Where are the petitions, the public protests, the lobbies of parliament? Why is this 13th-century law still permitted to stifle legitimate dissent? Wake up, Britain: your freedoms are disappearing into the pockets of barristers and billionaires.

Amen, I say Amen!

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Written by curly

September 17, 2008 at 10:19 am

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  1. […] Original post by curly […]

    Curly’s Corner Shop

    September 17, 2008 at 11:04 am


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