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UN calls UK government over attacks on freedom of expression

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Robert Maxwell, UK libel law’s most famous beneficiary

If I had to choose my all-time favourite bill ever passed by the New York State Legislature (a worthwhile way to spend an afternoon if ever there was one), it would have to be the “Libel Terrorism Protection Act”. The specific purpose of this bill is to stop Britain’s ‘rogue state’ libel laws from being used to undermine the constitutionally-protected right to freedom of speech in the state of New York.

Ironically, while the UK government allows our courts no jurisdiction over a murder committed overseas – even when the victim is a British citizen – it’s a different story when a book is published in a foreign country, which happens to offend someone with the time, inclination and (most importantly) cash to pursue their grievance in the UK courts.

The practice of ‘libel tourism’ relies on the fact that, with the internet, any book published anywhere in the world can be deemed to have effectively been published in the UK (and thereby fall under the jurisdiction of the UK libel courts) if it can be bought online and shipped to Britain. UK libel law famously places the burden of proof on the author/publisher of a work rather than on the plaintiff. A UK libel defendant is effectively guilty until proven innocent.

It’s also, I’m told, possible to defend a UK libel case successfully, yet still be left with massive legal costs to cover. Bringing a libel case can be very expensive, and is thus largely beyond the reach of ordinary citizens. So what we effectively have is a legal mechanism for allowing rich people and organisations to inflict crippling costs on anyone who says bad things about them, regardless of whether or not those things are actually true. During the 1970s and 1980s this mechanism was famously – and skillfully – exploited by the fraudster Robert Maxwell to suppress the many questions raised about his business deals. It was only after his somewhat mysterious death that the truth emerged. Perhaps the one saving grace of the law is that, at least in the UK, dead men can’t bring libel cases.

But with the advent of the internet, the phenomenon of ‘libel tourism’ gives the UK’s rapacious libel laws a global reach, and now pose such a threat to freedom of expression worldwide that foreign states are having to create legislation to protect their citizens.

The threat posed by ‘libel tourists’ is just one among a number of issues raised by a recent UN report on the state of human rights in the UK. Equally dangerous – if not more so, as we’ve been familiar with the libel problem for long enough to have at least some ways around it – is the Brown regime’s attempt to make it illegal for any former civil servant to say anything at all about their time in government, ever, without official permission from the state.

According to Craig Murray (ex UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan):

“The idea, of course, is that only the ministers’ version of truth will enter history. You can be confident that Jack Straw’s memoirs will not tell you that he instructed Richard Dearlove that we would use intelligence from torture, or that we colluded with torture and extraordinary rendition in Uzbekistan and elsewhere. You needed my memoirs for that. If Jack Straw had his way, I would not have been able to publish my book telling you the truth; in fact the new regulations were born directly out of Straw’s fury at Murder in Samarkand.”

In “Don’t Get Fooled Again”, I explore the ease with which deception and delusion can start to creep in – and go unchecked – once freedom of expression has been compromised. An effectively functioning society depends on the free flow of information. The quicker that serious systemic problems can be identified, and analysed, the quicker solutions can be found. Attacks on freedom of expression seriously hinder this process, with the result that, at the extreme (as in the Soviet Union and Communist China), a wholesale national disaster can unfold without those in power ever facing up to the reality of what’s going on – less still being held accountable.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 19, 2008 at 2:24 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] of the ‘rogue state’ libel laws… August 27, 2008 Last week I wrote about the defensive measures being taken in US to prevent Britain’s rapacious libel laws […]

  2. […] pulled out of the deal, fearing a prohibitively expensive lawsuit under the UK’s rogue-state libel laws, Craig decided to publish the book himself, and then make the pdfs available online for free, on […]

  3. […] even under UK libel law – which is so draconian that a number of US states have passed statutes protecting their citizens from malicious suits initiated in this […]


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