Richard Wilson's blog

richardcameronwilson AT yahoo dot co dot UK

Archive for March 2010

The Corruption Party launches its manifesto…

with one comment

In each of the three main parties there are MPs and Peers whose central ideological commitment is self-advancement. These are the people who will slavishly follow the instructions of their leadership rather than questioning the official line, lavish favours on their corporate sponsors, grab every financial perk that Parliament’s opaque and discredited rules allow, threaten to sue for libel when exposed, and steadfastly oppose efforts to reform the UK state’s secretive and corruption-prone political system.

In reality, these people cannot accurately be described as Conservatives, Liberals or Socialists (champagne or otherwise), because the agenda they follow is not actually about political ideology at all. These people are members of the All Party Group for Corruption and Self-Advancement, aka the Corruption Party.

Members of the cross-bench Corruption Party have far more in common with each other than they do with those MPs across the political spectrum who do their best to represent their constituents honestly, and will not be bought off by vested interests.

Many Corruption Party members were among the 98 MPs who, long before the expenses scandal hit the headlines, tried to stop the issue ever coming to light by quietly voting to exempt themselves from the Freedom of Information Act.

Many others were caught up in the outstanding exposé by the Sunday Times last year, and again this month, when Noble Lords and Right Honorable Members were captured on film offering to turn Parliamentary tricks in exchange for hard cash. Many others have yet to be exposed, but doubtless they will be, sooner or later…

And many more have been involved in efforts to railroad through a draconian law, parts of which have been written in their entirety by corporate lobbyists, that could grant the government sweeping powers to block websites and cut off whole households from the internet, if someone, somewhere, claims that their ‘intellectual property’ has been infringed.

In some cases the corruption will be clearly and demonstrably illegal. More often it thrives amid the loopholes and ambiguities of Parliament’s culture of soft-touch self-regulation. The Party’s main manifesto pledge is to Keep Corruption Legal. Their rallying cry is “I acted entirely within the rules”. Their party slogan is “None of your business”.

But the rank and file of the Corruption Party are the civil servants and Parliamentary staff who help to facilitate the crime. The fees office that waved through exorbitant and unfounded expense claims – and even proactively encouraged MPs to claim more. The departmental staff who hold secret meetings with corporate lobbyists. The civil servants who leave government in order to “hawk their contact book to the highest bidder”.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the most high-profile figures – MPs, ministers and ex-ministers – will fall hardest when exposed. But it seems worth asking whether the cumulative sleaze of the faceless civil servants and quangocrats might not actually be more insidious. While the scrutiny of our MPs’ behaviour is welcome, I suspect that the “next big scandal but one” may end up being about the role played by those people whose names seldom make it onto the front pages.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 30, 2010 at 9:13 am

A response from Tony Baldry MP

with 4 comments

I’m grateful to Tony Baldry MP for providing the following response to a number of questions I put to him last week:

Dear Mr. Wilson,

Thank you for your email.

I think it may be helpful if I make a number of points.

Firstly, I have sought to respond promptly to any letters or emails that are sent to me on this matter.   However, my experience is that organisations such as the Nigerian Liberty Forum and Rally for Nigeria either claim that they have never received my responses, or simply ignore the contents.

Part of my frustration with the Independent on Sunday was that the journalist concerned made no proper effort to get in touch with me, or to put to me the matters which were going to become allegations in his article.  This hardly strikes me as being responsible journalism.

I think it is also fair to observe that notwithstanding the Independent on Sunday’s apology and correction, again, without making any attempt whatsoever to get in touch with me, you simply sought to repeat  the IOS’s earlier allegations which were untrue and defamatory.

I have no quarrel with political blogs.  I believe they serve a genuinely useful purpose in making our politics more vibrant, but I see no justification for bloggers, particularly those who are journalists like yourself, simply repeating allegations which the newspaper concerned has acknowledged were incorrect.

Incidentally, it was not my intention that your blog should be removed;  simply that the defamatory material should be removed.

As I had not had the opportunity prior to publication of discussing the issues with the journalists concerned, my objective was simply to ensure that there was a correction printed as soon as possible based on the facts.

I have not read your further blog.  I think that the Olswang letter, which is now available on the internet, together with the correction from the Independent on Sunday, reflect a fair and accurate statement of the facts.

As I have repeatedly made clear, I have taken no action in this matter as a Member of Parliament.  My locus has been as a barrister, properly instructed.

Attention has focused on the letter that I wrote to the Foreign Secretary.  Various allegations have been made against me, all of which are untrue; it has been said that the letter sought to persuade the Government to discontinue the prosecutions at present being undertaken at Southwark Crown Court – untrue.

It has been suggested that the letter sought to persuade the Government/prosecuting authorities to discontinue the investigation into James Ibori  –  untrue.

It has been suggested that I advised that any investigation into Mr. Ibori should be discontinued as being detrimental to British interests – again, untrue.

I understand that an application has been made under the Freedom of Information Act to the Foreign Office for disclosure of the letter  and this, I understand, has been refused by the Foreign Office on the grounds that its release could be detrimental  to relations between the UK and another Government and also that its release could be detrimental to the administration of justice, and as a member of the Bar, I  think I would be quite rightly open to criticism if, given those conclusions by the Foreign Office, doubtless in consultation with the Office of the Attorney-General, I was to publish the letter myself.  That matter, as I understand it, is now before the Information Commissioner for him to decide.

However, I think that you and organisations such as the NLF, might like to reflect on the motivation and tactics of whoever “leaked” the existence of this letter to the NLF.

If they had thought that I had done something untoward, as a Member of Parliament , they could presumably have “leaked” the whole letter, or acted in such way as that the letter could have been made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who regulates the conduct of Members of Parliament.  Indeed, the day after the IOS’s article was published, I immediately sent the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards a copy of  the letter myself.

So those who “leaked” the existence of the letter, chose to leak what were clearly selective, inaccurate, and untrue assertions as to its contents.

So, for example, the NLF at the outset were clearly convinced that the purpose of my letter had somehow been to interfere in the existing trial of defendants at Southwark.  But as I have explained to organisations such as the NLF, and Rally for Nigeria, way back in February, so far as the Southwark proceedings were concerned, my letter stated in terms “I do not represent any of these defendants, and am in no way involved with their defence, and of course the conduct of that case is a matter for the Crown Court”.

Moreover, I do somewhat have the impression that whatever the facts in this case, and however often I respond to queries,  there is a determination to try and find something untoward.  So, for example, I understand that you have made a request to the Foreign Office, under the FOI, for a copy of the envelope in which the letter was sent.  I hope they still have it, as it will show that it is a perfectly normal white envelope !

I repeat.  At no time has my involvement in this matter been as a Member of Parliament, but as a barrister.

As a Member of Parliament, I am under the rules of the House, obliged to make a number of declarations in the Register of Members’ Interests with regard to any outside interests.  This I have fully done.

Finally, as a general point, it has always been a valued tradition of the English Bar, that the English Bar will properly represent and give the best possible advice to anyone involved with the English criminal system, irrespective of the allegations being made against those individuals.  As far as I am aware, we have never had a situation in England where journalists and the media have sought to attack Members of the Bar because of the clients they represent.

I appreciate that I have not answered all of your questions and insofar as I haven’t answered all your questions, I have not done so because they do not relate to my conduct as a Member of Parliament and I think that it would be unprofessional of me to say anything further on this matter as a member of the Bar whilst criminal proceedings are still ongoing at Southwark Crown Court – about which, and for the avoidance of any doubt, I repeat, I have at no time made any representations and whilst criminal investigations are still outstanding against James Ibori.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Baldry

The questions I asked were:

1.  It has been alleged that you met with the Nigerian President last year, and discussed with him the criminal investigation by the UK authorities into the financial affairs of the Nigerian politician James Ibori. Is this true?

2. If so, did you conduct this meeting in your capacity as an MP or a barrister?

3. If it is true that this meeting took place, what was the purpose of the meeting, which issues were discussed and which actions were agreed?

4. If it is true that the meeting took place, how long afterwards did you write your letter to David Miliband about the James Ibori case?

5. Do you deny suggesting in this letter that the criminal investigation into Mr Ibori might be detrimental to British interests?

6. The Oxford Mail reports that a solicitor who has acted for the Ibori family recently paid you £37,000 for 29 hours’ legal work between September and December last year. What did this work involve?

Written by Richard Wilson

March 27, 2010 at 10:01 am

Principle Healthcare and Layscience.net

with one comment

I bumped into the excellent Martin Robbins last night, which reminded me that I’d been meaning to blog about the highly dubious libel threats made against Martin’s website, www.layscience.net by a company called Principle Healthcare.

In many countries, private companies are prevented from sueing anyone for libel – the basic principle being that the right to be protected against unfounded attacks on one’s reputation is a human right, and extending human rights to abstract organisational entitites debases the whole concept. A company doesn’t have the right to get married, seek asylum or enjoy state-sponsored education, after all. Government bodies don’t have the right to sue for libel, and the sky hasn’t fallen in for them. It seems worth asking whether it really makes sense for companies to use up valuable court time on their “right” to an unblemished reputation.

More concretely, while a vicious and unfounded smear campaign can cause very real psychological harm to a person (in my view the most compelling argument for having a libel law in the first place), a company does not have a mind and therefore cannot be psychologically harmed.

The other very obvious problem is that companies tend to have far more resources at their disposal than most individuals do, so when a company tries to sue an individual, in many cases there will be an enormous “inequality of arms”.

So I was very disappointed when I heard yet another example of a company throwing its weight around by threatening a blogger with libel.

Martin writes:

On March 11th, I received a letter from some lawyers in Yorkshire. Who they are doesn’t really matter, they’re just one of many provincial firms of solicitors in the UK. They were engaged by Principle Healthcare, a firm selling vitamin pills, motto: “Our reputation is your insurance.”

Unfortunately for Principle Healthcare’s reputation, another blogger and regular guest writer on The Lay Scientist, James Cole, spotted some claims on their website one day that seemed to be a bit dodgy. He decided to do some investigating, and he reported his findings to the MHRA, and to Trading Standards.

They weren’t very pleased with Principle Healthcare. The MHRA said:

“We do regard these to be inappropriate medicinal claims.”

While Trading Standards said:

“In respect to the apple cider vinegar product, I have and advised (sic) the company to remove these claims.”

Three months later, some of the claims were still there, and a gentleman from Trading Standards e-mailed James again to explain:

“I have once again contacted the company with regard to this matter and await the amendment of the website.”

James also wrote about his findings, and his communications with the MHRA and Trading Standards, on both his own blog, and layscience.net.

This all happened a few months ago, and such is the transient nature of the blogosphere that as of last week the story was long-forgotten to all but the officials still pestering Principle Healthcare to remove the claims in question.

And then, as I mentioned, I received a letter.

It read as follows (I’ve edited it only very slightly, to remove some personal details):

Dear Sirs,

Our Client: Principle Healthcare Limited

We act for the above named Company, a Company registered in England and Wales with Company Registration No. 4283476. The Company is involved in the sale of vitamins, minerals and other supplements.

It has come to our Client’s knowledge that James Cole is posting defamatory statements against our Client on the website layscience.net. The defamatory statements are included in the following blogs:-

(1) Alternative Medicine and a Failure of Regulation.

(2) Unprincipled Healthcare: Part Two.

The defamatory statements that James Cole is making include calling our Client’s professionalism into question; posting negative comments about its products; and making false accusations about its business practices and ethos.

Our Client’s reputation is of the utmost importance to it. Therefore we require the disabling of the relevant blogs. We look forward to hearing from you within 7 days with your confirmation that you have carried this out.

If you fail to take the required action within 7 days, we will have no option but to instruct a U.S. attorney to take appropriate action against you.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Yours faithfully,

[A law firm in Yorkshire]

I don’t think this is really on, so I’ve decided to reproduce both blog posts in their entirety here. I believe they both constitute fair comment in the public interest, and that there is really no justification here for the kind of threats that have been made.

From Layscience.net

Alternative Medicine and a Failure of Regulation

Wed, 11/04/2009 – 16:30
//

Back in July, I wrote three blog posts about claims made on the website of a food supplement manufacturer. As well as writing about their claims, I contacted the MHRA and Trading Standards.

The first post pointed out that the firm were selling industrially-produced herbal remedies and making medicinal claims for them. I wrote to the MHRA, linking to the relevant page, and enquired as to whether the claims made were acceptable. I got the following response:

Thank you for your e-mail and for bring this matter to our attention. We do regard these to be inappropriate medicinal claims.

Despite the MHRA regarding the claims made by Principle Healthcare in promoting their herbal remedies to be “inappropriate medicinal claims”, they still appear on the Principle Healthcare website.

Parts two and three dealt with what I saw as breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and the EU Regulations 1924/2006 on food labelling.

I contacted the Office of Fair Trading regarding the alleged breaches of the former regulations, who advised me to contact the Advertising Standards Authority. The problem with that suggestion is that material on a business’s website does not come under the jurisdiction of the ASA.

I also made contact (regarding the alleged breaches of the latter regulations) with the relevant branch of Trading Standards. North Yorkshire Trading Standards have yet to respond to my email – which was sent four months ago.

Rather than waste time chasing up regulatory bodies who have either (a)(b) failed to even respond to my complaint, I thought it might be worth contacting my MP. referred me to another regulatory body that does not have the power to investigate the alleged breaches or

Before doing so I will, out of courtesy, contact the regulatory bodies once more and see if they are willing to actually take some kind of action against the firm in question. Even if it is just to request they remove the offending material from their website.

Wish me luck.

Edit, 15th November: there is now a follow-up post here.

From “Stuff and Nonsense”

Principle Healthcare and the Unfair Trading Regulations

July 3, 2009 at 9:17 pm

Following on from my previous post about vitamin pill entrepreneurs Principle Healthcare, I bring you details of a letter I wrote to the authorities regarding the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. Some of the claims made on the website I have been investigating are staggering.#

One claim I noted was that for those finding it difficult to focus on a task: “unless you’re taking fish oil supplements or you’re eating an extraordinary amount of fatty fish, chances are those levels [of Omega 3] were too low”.

This is a remarkable claim to make – it implies that maintaining adequate levels of Omega 3 fatty acids requires a very large intake that is only achievable by shovelling down masses of oily fish or popping fish oil pills. One wonders how vegetarians cope… [Incidentally, there are about 220 million strict vegetarians in India, according to the Anthropological Survey of India. I wonder if they are all deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids and have difficulty focussing on tasks?]

As far as I am aware, the only decent trials that have been conducted into Omega 3 fatty acids and mental performance have been in children with DCD or ADHD. As Ben Goldacre wrote in September 2007: “Even now, for all this pretending, there still has never been a single controlled trial, even a cheap one, of omega-3 fish oil supplements in normal children.” [http://www.badscience.net/2007/09/the-fishy-reckoning/]

Another was this: glucose tablets are, apparently, “A must for those with hectic busy schedules”. Really? Sugar pills are essential for those with hectic schedules? This sort of stuff beggars belief. There’s plenty more where that came from.

According to Principle Healthcare, Coenzyme Q10 is of benefit “to those exposed to pollution and stressful lifestyles” because it is an antioxidant. Are antioxidants now a cure for stressful lifestyles? That sounds frankly bizarre to me.

Then there’s the assertion that homocysteine increases our risk of a problem with the circulatory system. I’m not sure whether there is any decent evidence to back up this assertion, but when I searched Pubmed for up to date evidence relating to homocysteine and the circulatory system I found only one paper with a link to free full text published in the last year. The conclusions of this paper did not seem to me to support the assertion made by the vitamin B pills salesmen. There is more on homocysteine as a surrogate endpoint below.*

As for Apple Cider Vinegar, well it almost sounds like a panacea. It “helps curb appetite, is a gentle detoxification agent, absorbs and blocks fat formation, boosts the immune system and supplies amino acids, minerals and vitamins”.

Apparently.

There’s a little bit more on ACV here: old blog post, please don’t laugh at my amateurish early efforts at blogging.

[Amendment: the text of the letter I wrote has been removed from this section.]

David Colquhoun discusses the Unfair Trading Regulations here. His post on whether most alternative medicine is illegal includes links to the relevant pieces of legislation.

Here are some PDFs of the relevant webpages just in case they disappear: Active Defence Apple Cider CoQ10 Echinacea glucose tabs PomegranateProbiotic PHC About Us page PHC Ailments

————————————————————————————————-

*Homocysteine: is it a modifiable causal risk factor for vascular disease or simply a marker of risk burden? This is part of the background to this recent paper which found that “long-term homocysteine-lowering treatment with B-vitamins does not significantly reduce CIMT or increase FMD in people with a history of stroke” and that “the modest increase in FMD associated with short-term B-vitamin treatment does not appear to be translated into improved vascular structure or sustained in the longer term”.

As the authors state in the abstract, “long-term homocysteine-lowering did not significantly improve FMD or CIMT in people with a history of stroke” (CIMT is carotid intima-medial thickness and FMD stands for flow-mediated dilation).

A slightly older paper, meanwhile, concluded that “adjusting for renal function not only eliminates the relationship between tHcy and markers of vascular risk in subjects with proven cerebrovascular disease” and that “Our data are thus consistent with the hypothesis that mild renal impairment is an independent risk factor for vascular disease and elevated tHcy simply a marker for reduced GFR. The underlying relationship between tHcy and renal function is not altered by long-term B-vitamin supplementation and it is possible that, by treating homocysteine, we may be shooting the messenger rather than attacking the true risk factor.” [http://atvb.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/28/6/1158]

A study that looked at biomarkers for PAD (Peripheral Arterial Disease) development in women did not find significant associations for homocysteine and other biomarkers. The authors “found the proinflammatory cellular adhesion molecule sICAM-1 to be the strongest predictor of confirmed clinical events” and noted three other biomarkers that were significant and one that was borderline significant. [http://circ.ahajournals.org/cgi/content/full/117/6/823]

I’m not expert in medical matters (as you will probably have noted if you’ve read this blog before) but it seems to me that homocysteine could well be a false surrogate endpoint.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 27, 2010 at 9:37 am

Trafigura vindicated? 115-page “Reply” which the company says rebuts the BBC’s case

with 5 comments

Trafigura’s Reply to the BBC’s libel Defence(PDF)

A few weeks ago Wikileaks published the 40-page court document in which the BBC laid out its defence against Trafigura’s libel claim, following this Newsnight report from May last year.

Trafigura had always insisted that the available scientific evidence vindicated them of blame for any deaths or serious injuries following the August 2006 Probo Koala toxic waste incident, and in December the BBC controversially withdrew their claims and agreed to pay damages. Yet Trafigura have never published the evidence which they say vindicates them, despite repeated requests.

Following the publication of the BBC document by Wikileaks, the blogger Calum Carr again contacted Trafigura to request their side of the story, but again to no avail.

Calum and I have now obtained this document ourselves. Given today’s very promising news about the libel reform campaign, we felt that this was a good moment to put the information out into the public domain, so that people can form their own view on this contentious issue.

Obtaining an electronic copy of this document has been an interesting process in itself. To do this, I had to:

1. Go to the High Court in person

2. Make a formal request for a copy of the document (giving full personal details including my home address)

3. Wait several days

4. Phone the High Court to see if the copy was ready

5. Visit the High Court again in person

6. Pay a not-insignificant photocopying fee

7. Pick up the paper copy of the document

8. Take the copy to a specialist document scanning company to get it turned into a PDF

9. Pay another fee

10. Wait another few days, before receiving the PDF via email.

This is apparently standard procedure for getting hold of key UK court documents. One would almost have thought that the legal authorities did not actually want the British public to have ready access to documents which are, at least in theory, available to all of us by right…

We might compare the above process to the mechanism involved in, say, accessing the text of a Parliamentary Question or a Select Committee report, eg:

1. Visit the Parliament website

2. Type in a relevant search term

2. Download the information (for free).

For all the concerns we might have about the current workings of the Parliament, its processes currently seem a whole lot more open transparent than those of the judiciary. Apart from anything else, the requirement that one has to visit the High Court in person to access a public document seems inherently discriminatory to anyone living a significant distance from London.

If and when we get some real progress on libel reform, it seems to me that opening up the judiciary to at least the same levels of scrutiny we have for Parliament could be an important next step.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 23, 2010 at 8:00 pm

Labour MPs caught in second-jobs sleaze sting

with one comment

From the Sunday Times

A FORMER Labour cabinet minister has boasted about how he used his government contacts to change policies in favour of businesses.

Stephen Byers, former trade and transport secretary, was secretly recorded offering himself “like a sort of cab for hire” for up £5,000 a day. He also suggested bringing Tony Blair to meet clients.

He was among several politicians recorded by an undercover reporter posing as a company executive looking to hire MPs for lobbying work.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 21, 2010 at 9:18 am

MP second jobs controversy: What the voters of Banbury need to know about Tony Baldry MP…

with 5 comments

*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about Tony Baldry, the MP for Banbury, in which I referred to some rather surprising allegations that have been made about him by a grassroots anti-corruption group, the Nigerian Liberty Forum. I had been prompted to look into the issue after I read that the Independent had withdrawn an article about it, following libel threats from Tony Baldry.

A few days later, I myself was contacted by Baldry’s lawyers, Olswang, who claimed that my blog post was defamatory, and copied me on a letter that they had sent to my webhosts, WordPress, threatening to sue them for libel, and demanding that the entire post be taken down. In their email to me, Olswang also stated that “we will advise our client to take all necessary steps to protect his reputation should there be any repetition of these allegations”, which I took to be a threat of libel against me.

(Readers can make up their own minds about the degree to which the Olswang letter accurately reflects what I wrote. The original version of the blogpost is available here.)

What surprises me most about this was that, to the best of my knowledge, Tony Baldry has not made any threats of libel against my original source, The Nigerian Liberty Forum. Their allegations and are still freely available all over the internet, and their criticisms arguably far more detailed and damning.

The dispute centres around a letter that Tony Baldry wrote to the British government in September last year, in which he discussed a UK corruption investigation into James Ibori, the former governor of Nigeria’s oil-rich Delta State region, alongside a number of his associates. Tony Baldry (through his lawyers, Olswang) has been at pains to make it clear that he wrote this letter in his capacity as a barrister (one of his second jobs outside of Parliament), and that in writing this letter he was not seeking to get the criminal investigation shelved:

1. The letter was written on the notepaper of 1 Essex Court, and it states clearly that Mr Baldry has been instructed by solicitors to represent James Ibori. The letter was clearly written in Mr Baldry’s capacity as Counsel for Mr Ibori, not as an MP.

2. There is no suggestion anywhere in the letter that Mr Baldry is seeking any course of action which would benefit Mr Ibori. The letter specifically summarises its purpose by saying that perhaps after the outcome of the criminal proceedings is known, relevant agencies might want to reflect on lessons learned.

The Nigerian Liberty Forum has argued, and I agree, that the quickest and easiest way of clarifying this issue to everyone’s satisfaction would be for Mr Baldry – or the UK government – to publish the disputed letter in full.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Office has refused a Freedom of Information Act request from the NLF. Given the lack of resources allocated by the government to the Information Commission for FOI appeals, it also seems likely that the decision will not be reviewed for many months – if not years.

So we’re left wondering what exactly what was in that letter, and what the purpose of writing it really was.

The decision to take down my original blog post was made by me. I didn’t think it was fair that WordPress were getting threatened over something that was my responsibility. While I knew that Tony Baldry was insistent that he had written his September 2009 letter in his capacity as a barrister rather than an MP, and I had made that quite clear in the article, I hadn’t actually been aware that Tony Baldry disputed the purpose of that letter as it had been described by the Nigerian Liberty Forum. And it seemed somewhat futile to get into a dispute with the author of a letter I hadn’t seen, over that letter’s contents – especially as I had merely been referring to what others had alleged, rather than making that allegation myself.

I also figured that once I’d had the chance to look into it in depth I could always return to the issue again.

My point in that original blog post – as it is now – was really that even if we take only the facts about this story that are not contested, it seems to raise some worrying questions.

1. Potential conflicts of interest

Firstly, it seems to me very surprising that our Parliamentary system should allow MPs to hold a second job which involves a) acting on behalf of people who are under criminal investigation (perhaps especially when this involves allegations of large-scale corruption) by the UK courts over which Parliament ultimately has sovereignty and b) making representations on behalf of such people to the same government ministers they face daily on the floor of House of Commons in their capacity as an MP.

The potential for such an arrangement to create conflicts of interest seems very clear, and quite worrying. Even in the terms that Tony Baldry himself has described it, I believe that this case does not look good, and I doubt that it will look good to many outside of the “Westminster bubble”. If this is what the rules allow then it seems to me that those rules urgently need to be changed.

2. Transparency and accountability

Secondly, an effective democracy depends on our being able to scrutinise the activities of our elected representatives. Yet we are unable to do that fully in this case, because the letter that Tony Baldry wrote to the UK government is protected from FOI disclosure. As I believe the “exemptions” listed here make clear, one of the main reasons for this is precisely because he wrote it confidentially in his capacity as a barrister acting on behalf of a client.

(As it happens, it appears that the letter only came to light in the first place because its existence was leaked to the Nigerian Liberty Forum – had this not happened, then we and the voters of Banbury would presumably have never have even heard about this issue).

The Nigerian Liberty Forum have also alleged – and it should be clear here that I am referring to an allegation rather than endorsing it – that just days before writing his September 2009 letter to the UK government about James Ibori, Tony Baldry had met with the Nigerian President, and discussed the Ibori case with him.

Again, my point here is not to suggest that Tony Baldry broke any Parliamentary rules. My point is rather that  it’s very difficult for us to scrutinise what, in practice, those rules are allowing, and form our own judgements about whether we agree that this is reasonable and appropriate behaviour for our elected representatives.

One analogy might be the controversy around MPs’ expenses. Parliament had published the broad rules guiding what MPs were, and were not, allowed to claim, and these seemed reasonable enough to many. Yet it was only when the specific details emerged of what, exactly, had been allowed under those rules, that we got a really meaningful picture of what had been going on. And at that point many of us came to the conclusion that the rules were not appropriate, and needed changing.

It seems to me that the more “second jobs” that an MP holds, the harder it is going to be to scrutinise their external activities, and satisfy ourselves that those activities are appropriate, whether or not they are “within the rules” that Parliament writes for itself.

Tony Baldry’s external activities are listed by They Work For You as follows:

1. Remunerated directorships

Chairman (non-executive), Westminster Oil Limited; a BVI registered company, development of oil licences and exploration.

West African Investments Ltd; investing in infrastructure and natural resource projects in Sierra Leone and elsewhere in West Africa.

Halcyon Oil Limited; a Hong Kong registered company focusing on oil exploration and discovery projects in Central Asia.

Mastermailer Holdings plc; development of stationery and stationery products. I am a non-executive director, and my duties involve attending board meetings…

2. Remunerated employment, office, profession etc

Practising barrister, arbitrator and mediator…

Executive Partner in Diamond Film Partnership; a UK partnership promoting UK film and television production rights.

Chairman of the Advisory Committee of Curve Capital Ventures Ltd, c/o Apex Fund Services (Mauritius) Ltd, Suite 2005, Level 2, Alexander House, 35 Cyber City, Evene, Mauritius; a sector neutral investment company that predominantly invests in India, China and Africa and advises companies on strategic growth and global expansion.

The Oxford Mail reports that since last July alone, Tony Baldry has earned more than £111,000 from his external interests – significantly more than his £64,766 MP’s annual salary.

3. Why was the letter written?

Thirdly, I remain very confused about why Tony-Baldry-the-barrister would have written this controversial letter to the UK government in the first place.

The lawyer and journalist Allen Green had these thoughts on that issue in this week’s excellent article in the Lawyer:

The other aspect of the Independent on Sunday apology which intrigued me was the notion of a barrister – especially in a matter where solicitors are instructed – writing a letter.

I have never before come across it.

Settling draft letters to go out under the letterhead of the instructing solicitor or the client is common.  Indeed it is sensible if one takes litigation seriously, not least as it prevents the barrister from blaming the solicitor for screwing up pre-action correspondence.

But a barrister sending a letter under their own name?  Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with this, it must be unusual.  In my experience it sometimes difficult to get barrister to even sign the pleadings they are supposed to put their name to.

So Allen Green wrote to Tony Baldry and asked him:

Why did you write the letter on behalf of the client when solicitors were instructed?

(It is highly unusual for barristers to write any correspondence in their own name (rather than pleadings), especially when solicitors are instructed.)

But the only answer to this that Tony Baldry gave was:

The letter was written in my capacity as a Barrister, instructed by solicitors.

Tony Baldry states that in writing the letter he was not seeking to secure any “benefit” for James Ibori. We can take this at face value, yet still be confused about why a barrister would be employed to act in behalf of a client towards a particular purpose (eg. in this case writing to the UK government) if that purpose held no benefit at all for the client.

The picture gets even more confusing when we look at the reasons reportedly given by the UK government for refusing to disclose the letter following a Freedom of Information Act request. These include an exemption under Section 27(1)(a) of the Act, which “allows us to withhold information if its disclosure would or would be likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and another state.”

What could possibly have been in that letter – which we’ve been told was written by a barrister acting solely in his capacity as a barrister on behalf of a client in a criminal investigation – that would have such wide-ranging political implications as to risk undermining international relations were it to be disclosed?

4. Libel should not be used to suppress political scrutiny and debate

Fourthly, it seems to me extremely worrying that an elected MP should be so quick to respond to public criticism by threatening to sue newspapers and web-publishers for libel. Tony Baldry is by no means alone in this. One of the reasons I became interested in this issue in the first place is that I’ve begun to lose count of the number of times an MP or Lord has used our notoriously draconian libel laws to try to get a news article censored.

Among the worst offenders was Michael Martin MP during his time as Speaker of the House of Commons. Martin’s multiple failures during the expenses scandal ultimately brought about his downfall (though he still got to sit in the House of Lords, where he has continued to do damage). But for a long time he had great success in using libel threats to get critical media coverage withdrawn.

These people are public figures whose actions in office can impact on us all. There is a clear public interest in being able to scrutinise and question their behaviour, freely and without intimidation. As public servants, it seems to me that our politicians therefore have a duty actively to support robust and open debate, and to avoid doing anything which might deter critical scrutiny.

Yet we have somehow got used to the idea that our MPs can routinely resort to heavy-handed legal tactics at the slightest of provocations. This week it was revealed that the Respect MP George Galloway was suing over a critical comment left on a blog. Regardless of the objectionable nature of the comment (and I’m no great fan of the website in question) this decision – and in particular the scale of damages being demanded -  seems quite extraordinary. I hope that George Galloway, who interviewed me on his radio show (in his capacity as a radio presenter, not an MP, I hasten to add) when Don’t Get Fooled Again was first published, will soon realise how bad this looks to the neutral observer and reconsider what he’s doing.

There is now a palpable reluctance in large sections of the media to ask critical questions about our politicians’ behaviour, and the rules by which they govern themselves. It strikes me that this is very bad for our democracy.  I think that our elected representatives need to develop a thicker skin, and we need to start being more critical when MPs make inappropriate libel threats.

I am genuinely amazed that Tony Baldry chose to address this controversy by threatening to sue my webhosts. I do not believe it reflects well on him that he chose to do so, especially as the airing of similar allegations in stronger terms elsewhere appears to have gone unchallenged.

Neither does it look good, as Allen Green has noted, that Tony Baldry demanded the removal not only of the comments he deemed inaccurate and defamatory, but the entire blogpost.

I have no desire to say anything about Tony Baldry which is untrue or unfair, and am happy to take corrections when necessary. But on the basis of the evidence I have seen, I do believe that there are serious questions that need to be asked about this case, and that asking those questions is manifestly in the public interest.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 20, 2010 at 4:18 pm

Anonymous censor attacks Tony Baldry MP’s wikipedia entry…

with 4 comments

Unnecessary censorship…

This amused me…

Now why would someone want to go and repeatedly remove well-sourced, yet embarrassing, pieces of information from an elected MP’s wikipedia entry, claiming, falsely, that they were “inaccuracies”?

And why would someone create a wikipedia account which they then use solely for that purpose, and none other?

It’s almost as if whoever’s behind this doesn’t want the voters of Banbury to be properly informed about the more “controversial” activities of their democratic representative…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Tony Baldry MP: The questions that refuse to go away…

leave a comment »

Elegant stuff from Jack of Kent writing in The Lawyer

The Capacities of Tony Baldry, a Barrister and MP

Our tale begins on 28 February 2010, where the Independent on Sunday published the following apology to Tony Baldry, a barrister and also a Conservative MP:

“In our article “Tory MP accused over links to Nigerian politician” 14 February 2010, we reported that Tony Baldry MP had “lobbied” on behalf of a Nigerian politician James Ibori in writing a letter

to the Foreign Secretary and others and that his involvement amounted to “political lobbying”. We now accept that Mr Baldry did not lobby on behalf of Mr Ibori, the letter was written in his capacity as a barrister, instructed by solicitors, who was acting for Mr Ibori. The letter was not written in Mr Baldry’s capacity as a MP, and we accept that there was no breach of the Parliamentary rule about Lobbying for Reward or Consideration. We apologise to Mr Baldry for suggesting that he acted improperly as an MP.”

So, as E. L. Wisty said of trappings, the Independent on Sunday had clearly got hold of the wrong load of capacities…

[Read the rest of this article at The Lawyer]

Written by Richard Wilson

March 18, 2010 at 11:25 am

Tory paymaster uses dodgy UK libel laws to censor BBC documentary scrutinising his affairs

with 5 comments

If they’re this repressive in opposition, what will they be like in government?

Exploiting a draconian law to suppress political debate in the run up to an election? I think this takes us into banana republic territory. Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza would be impressed…

From The Independent

The BBC has shelved a Panorama documentary about the business affairs of the Tory billionaire Lord Ashcroft, because of a threat of legal action.

The Corporation has received what one insider described as “several very heavy letters” from Lord Ashcroft’s lawyers. There is now little or no prospect of the investigation being broadcast before the general election, if it goes out at all.

The hold-up will delight David Cameron’s campaign team, who had been trying to pressure the BBC into delaying the programme until after the general election. But sources inside the Corporation firmly deny that political pressure played a part in keeping the programme off the air, attributing the delay solely to the risk of legal action.

The Tories are anxious to suppress more publicity about Lord Ashcroft’s affairs after the outcry earlier this month when the Tory billionaire belatedly revealed that he is not domiciled in the UK for tax purposes, and so pays no tax on his huge overseas assets.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 18, 2010 at 7:09 am

And the industry lobbying campaign against libel cost reform plans is led by… the BCA’s lawyers, Collyer Bristow. But who are “Lawyers for Media Standards”?

with 12 comments

*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

Who’s for a flashmob?

Earlier this month, Justice Secretary Jack Straw confirmed plans to tackle the notoriously high costs of defending a UK libel case by slashing the “success fees” that law firms can charge when prosecuting an alleged libel on a no win, no fee basis.

The Press Gazette yesterday reported that, in response:

A newly formed group, Lawyers for Media Standards, is threatening to seek judicial review over Justice Secretary Jack Straw’s plan to cut the maximum success fee which lawyers working on Conditional Fee Agreements cases can charge.

The group has demanded that Straw drops his plan to reduce success fees by ninety per cent in so-called no-win, no-fee cases and re-open the consultation which preceded his announcement.

Lawyers for Media Standards outlined the threat in a letter sent to Straw, earlier this month, by law firm Collyer Bristow.

It’s worth noting at this point that defending a UK libel case currently costs 140-times the European average, and that as a result defendants who lack the financial means to cover these costs are effectively denied their right to a fair trial.

The one case above all that has galvanised public opinion on this issue is that of  Simon Singh, the author being sued by the British Chiropractic Association over criticisms he made about their scientific claims.  Where many would backed down long ago, Simon Singh has refused to retract his comments because he believes them to be fair and true, and has already paid an enormous price as a result.

And it just so happens that Collyer Bristow, the law firm heading the libel industry’s counter-attack against efforts to reign in their exorbitant fees, is the self-same law firm that is representing the British Chiropractic Association in their controversial and much criticised case against Simon Singh.

But what else do we know about “Lawyers for Media Standards” (LMS)? Well, the naming convention certainly seems familiar to anyone who’s looked into the murkier dealings of the PR industry (remember “Swiftboat Veterans for Truth”, and “Citizens for a Free Kuwait”?).

According to Collyer Bristow, LMS is “an incorporated body whose members include a number of lawyers who represent both claimants and defendants in defamation cases with the benefit of Conditional Fee Agreements”.

According to the Law Gazette, the organisation “aims to influence the debate on libel reform by emphasising the rights to obtain redress of those damaged by the media”.

And according to the London School of Economics, the organisation was behind a recent academic report which described itself as “A Rejoinder to the Clamour for Reform of Defamation”, and warned that proposals for reform could spell the “death of libel” and “truly unleash a feral beast” if enacted wholesale.

When I looked up “Lawyers for Media Standards” on the Companies House website, I couldn’t find any company matching that name, but there is an intriguing entry for an organisation called “Lawyers for Media Rights”, which was formally incorporated just over a week ago, on the 10th of March 2010.

The address given is: 50-52 CHANCERY LANE, LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM WC2A 1HL. It just so happens that this is the same address as a law firm called Russell, Jones and Walker, whose work includes privacy and “defamation: libel and slander”.

For some reason, although this is officially public information, if you want to know more details, Companies House will charge you for them. So I had to spend £2 (and endure a somewhat cumbersome payment system), to glean the following additional information:

Lawyers for Media Rights has just one “officer”, the Director, Jeremy Clarke-Williams. It lists its objects as “to uphold the principles laid down in the European Convention of Human Rights in relation to the media, balancing freedom of expression with the right to reputation and privacy, and to protect and enhance access to justice for claimants harmed by the media”.

A Google search on “Lawyers for Media Rights” currently reveals absolutely nothing (though presumably this blog post will show up shortly). However, the top search result for “Jeremy Clarke-Williams” identifies him as Russell, Jones and Walker’s “partner in the Media, Libel and Privacy department”, where he “specialises in defamation, misuse of private information, media litigation, and reputation management” (1), and is apparently a “‘tough player and tireless adversary’”, admired for his “efficiency, swift responses and encyclopaedic knowledge”.

A search on “Lawyers for Media Standards“, reveals that Jeremy Clarke-Williams’ colleague at RJW, Sarah Webb, is a “founding member”. Other members reportedly include Jonathan Coad of media law firm Swan Turton and Dominic Crossley of Collyer Bristow.

The precise relationship between Lawyers for Media Standards and Lawyers for Media Rights seems unclear. But from the links between them, and the fact that they seem to be covering similar ground, I would guess that they might be quite closely related.

Interestingly, in 2005, Jeremy Clarke-Williams was quoted in a BBC article after a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the “McLibel two”, Helen Steel and David Morris, had been denied their right to a fair trial when they were refused legal aid in defending a libel case brought against them by McDonalds.

Clarke-Williams reportedly told the BBC it was unlikely the government would need to change the law in the light of the court’s ruling, because the cutback in legal aid and emergence of “no win no fee” agreements had largely plugged the hole in provision which led to the European Court action.

I suspect that many who’ve read the excellent report on libel abuse by the Libel Reform campaign would beg to differ. There’s obviously a great deal at stake here, and those who make money out of libel cases are presumably entitled to engage in political campaigning if they want to. But so too are we. Anyone for a flash mob?

*UPDATE* - Libel industry lobbyists have sought to characterise the Libel Reform campaign as driven primarily by the self-interest of big media groups. In fact it was initiated by two long-standing human rights organisations, Index on Censorship and English PEN, along with the skeptical campaigners Sense About Science, and enjoys broad support across civil society. Here’s the ferocious anti-corruption group Global Witness explaining why, in the context of libel, “no win no fee” agreements pose such a threat to its work.

(1) I should say, for the sake of clarity, that I take the above to mean that Jeremy Clarke-Williams specialises in taking action against defamation and misuse of private information, as opposed to any other meaning that might mistakenly be inferred…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 16, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Wikileaks publish BBC’s 39-page defence against the Trafigura libel suit

with 5 comments

From Wikileaks (pdf):

This document was submitted to the UK’s High Court by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in September 2009, as a Defence against a libel claim brought against them by the oil company Trafigura. A May 2009 BBC Newsnight feature suggested that 16 deaths and many other injuries were caused by the dumping in the Ivory Coast of a large quantity of toxic waste originating with Trafigura. A September 2009 UN report into the matter stated that 108,000 people were driven to seek medical attention.

This Defence, which has never been previously published online, outlines in detail the evidence which the BBC believed justified its coverage. In December 2009 the BBC settled out of court amid reports that fighting the case could have cost as much as 3 million pounds. The BBC removed its original Newsnight footage and associated articles from its on-line archives. The detailed claims contained in this document were never aired publicly, and never had a chance to be tested in court.

Commenting on the BBC’s climbdown, John Kampfner, CEO of Index on Censorship said: “Sadly, the BBC has once again buckled in the face of authority or wealthy corporate interests. It has cut a secret deal. This is a black day for British journalism and once more strengthens our resolve to reform our unjust libel laws.” Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, said: “Forced to choose between a responsible broadcaster and an oil company which shipped hundreds of tons of toxic waste to a developing country, English libel law has once again allowed the wrong side to claim victory. The law is an ass and needs urgent reform.”

Now that this document is in the public domain, the global public will be able to make their own judgement about the strength of the BBC’s case.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 16, 2010 at 7:31 am

What the voters of Banbury might want to ask Tony Baldry MP

with 7 comments

*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

1.  It has been alleged that you met with the Nigerian President last year, and discussed with him the criminal investigation by the UK authorities into the financial affairs of the Nigerian politician James Ibori. Is this true?

2. If so, did you conduct this meeting in your capacity as an MP or a barrister?

3. If it is true that this meeting took place, what was the purpose of the meeting, which issues were discussed and which actions were agreed?

4. If it is true that the meeting took place, how long afterwards did you write your letter to David Miliband about the James Ibori case?

5. Do you deny suggesting in this letter that the criminal investigation into Mr Ibori might be detrimental to British interests?

6. The Oxford Mail reports that a solicitor who has acted for the Ibori family recently paid you £37,000 for 29 hours’ legal work between September and December last year. What did this work involve?

Written by Richard Wilson

March 10, 2010 at 9:06 pm

Fair comment in the public interest

with 8 comments

*Help defend freedom of speech in the UK – sign the petition for libel reform*

Some readers will know that the post I wrote earlier this week about Tony Baldry MP and James Ibori has been taken off this site. More on that in due course.

In the meantime, I would recommend that everyone take a look at this blog post from Will Jordan, which I believe is both fair comment, and self-evidently in the public interest.

It seems to me that the core issue here is, as Craig Murray also points out, the extent to which it is appropriate, in a modern democracy, for MPs to hold down second (and third, and fourth and fifth) jobs without creating serious conflicts of interest which threaten to compromise their independence as MPs.

Tony Baldry has been at pains to stress the extent to which his work as a barrister is distinct from his activities as an MP. And yet the website of his own legal chambers, One Essex Court (accessed and archived 6/3/10), seems to blur this distinction, stating that:

Recent Heads of Chambers include Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, a leading Conservative MP for over twenty years, and Parliamentary connections are maintained under One Essex Court’s current head Tony Baldry MP.

The question of whether or not individual MPs are currently “acting within the rules” is, to my mind, secondary to this much larger question of whether the rules, in their current form, are really doing an effective job of maintaining the robust independence we need from our Parliamentarians in order to sustain a healthy democracy.

As was often the case during the expenses scandal, we might happily accept at face value all of the public statements that Tony Baldry MP has made, yet still have grave concerns that the Parliamentary rules could permit the arrangement he describes.

And as with the expenses scandal, it is vital that members of the public are able to voice these concerns openly, without facing threats or intimidation.

As Chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, Tony Baldry must surely be aware of the growing international concern around the use of UK libel law by super-rich claimants to deter critical reporting of serious public interest questions.

The debate around MPs’ second jobs – in which the controversy surrounding Tony Baldry is just one example – is clearly a public interest matter. Democracy depends on our freedom to scrutinise the conduct of our MPs, and question the rules they make for themselves.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 5, 2010 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

Tagged with

“When disputes arise, your commercial objectives are our main concern” – Whose interests does Lib Dem Lord Clement-Jones really represent?

with 6 comments

Lib Dem sleaze? Lord Clement-Jones takes £70,000 a year from DLA Piper, a law firm specialising in copyright and patent law, who would stand to gain a great deal if this draconian bill gets passed into law.

From the Guardian:

One of the most contentious parts of the controversial digital economy bill was voted down by the House of Lords last night – only to be replaced by a clause that campaigners say is even more draconian…

Putting forward the amendment, Lib Dem peer Lord Clement-Jones said… that it was a “more proportionate, specific and appropriate” way to approach infringement than the previous proposals made by the government…

But instead of making the proposed system more transparent and accountable, critics say it will simply leave it open to abuse.

“This would open the door to a massive imbalance of power in favour of large copyright holding companies,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group. “Individuals and small businesses would be open to massive ‘copyright attacks’ that could shut them down, just by the threat of action.”

“This is exactly how libel law works today: suppressing free speech by the unwarranted threat of legal action. The expense and the threat are enough to create a ‘chilling effect’.”

From the Register of Lord’s Interests

CLEMENT-JONES, Lord

*12(b) Parliamentary lobbying

Partner of DLA Piper (international law firm) and adviser to its global government relations practice.

The member is paid £70,000 in respect of his services as Co-Chairman of DLA Piper’s global government relations practice

The member acts personally for TransMedics Inc, a medical technology manufacturer

The member acts personally for Eli Lilly and Company, the pharmaceutical manufacturer

The member acts personally for University of Cambridge Local Examination Syndicate

The member acts personally for Raytheon Company a defence and homeland security technology company

*12(f) Regular remunerated employment

Partner DLA Piper UK LLP

*12(h) Secretarial research and assistance

Secretarial assistance paid for by DLA Piper UK LLP

And here’s what DLA Piper have to say about their work on “Intellectual Property”:

DLA Piper’s Intellectual Property and Technology practice is one of the largest groups of IP lawyers in the world… When disputes arise, your commercial objectives are our main concern…

Our IP experience includes IP litigation as well as representation in areas such as applications, prosecution, and filings for patents, trademarks, and copyrights…

The ability to advise on all aspects of technology law expands the efficiencies and breadth of service for our clients – we offer advice on all related IP matters such as advertising and promotion law, data security, digital media content, e-commerce/Internet transactions, and privacy protection. We also help develop compliance programs in response to new corporate policies or national and local government regulations, including IP, privacy, or quality control audits.

Wherever you are, and whatever your industry, you need people you can trust to meet your IP business objectives…

Written by Richard Wilson

March 4, 2010 at 11:07 am

Support the Libel Reform campaign – Free speech is not for sale!

leave a comment »

Click here to support the campaign for freedom of speech in the UK

England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised – there is urgent need for reform.

Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.

The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.

The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.

The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.

We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.

More than 30,000 people have signed so far – click here to join them

Written by Richard Wilson

March 4, 2010 at 7:29 am

“Dumping free news”

leave a comment »

The future for Mark Thompson’s muzzled, down-sized BBC?

For an organisation deeply implicated in organised crime, the Murdoch media empire has quite some cheek. But they certainly know how to put a gloss of respectability on the ruthless pursuit of self-interest.

One of the latest lines of attack from Murdoch junior is that the BBC is “dumping free news” on the market, by producing such detailed and comprehensive coverage on its flagship website, BBC online. Murdoch argues that this is unfair competition, because it makes it harder to get people to pay to read the news stories his companies publish. Why bother giving money to Murdoch when you can get the same stories online for free from the BBC?

It’s easy to agree  that, despite having vastly more money to spend (roughly £20 billion to the BBC’s £4.6 billion), Murdoch’s News Corporation media group struggles to come close to the quality, breadth and objectivity for which the BBC is renowned. But it’s hard to see how this is an argument for getting rid of the BBC, or making it more difficult for them to provide the public with free, high quality news.

A healthy, well-functioning democracy depends on our being able to make informed choices, and the degree to which this is possible depends, to a great extent, on the quality of the news that we can access. What Murdoch is really saying, it seems to me, is that the BBC is just doing too good a job of keeping the public well-informed, for free, and that as a result his companies are having difficulty keeping up.

While I can understand that Murdoch and his fellow executives might not like this, it’s harder to see how this is our problem, or why it would be in our interests to join the crusade to make it easier for the Times, Sun and News of the World to make money out of us.

The BBC is no more “dumping free news” on the market than the National Health Service is “dumping free healthcare”, or the Police and Army “dumping free security”. The BBC’s existence is no more unfair to the private news media than is the NHS to private health providers, or the Police and Army to private security contractors.  Just like the health service, the Police and the Army, the BBC is providing a clear public service with a clear public benefit.

What is less clear is how far the public interest is served by the activities of a private media outfit that dodges its tax liabilities, operates a near-monopoly in large areas of the UK media, engages in criminal activity to get celebrity exclusives (and lies about it afterwards), and has now launched an aggressive political campaign to restrict the public’s access to free information.

In response to Murdoch’s attacks, the 38 Degrees campaign has started an online action to demonstrate public support for the BBC. You can find out more here.

Written by Richard Wilson

March 2, 2010 at 9:57 am