Libel law censorship

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Yesterday, several British political blogs were pulled down, including Bloggerheads, that of the former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray, Bob Piper and Boris Johnson, when their web host gave in to threatening letters from lawyers acting for the Uzbek/Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who is trying to buy Arsenal football club. The threats were in response to allegations posted on Murray’s blog, which were reproduced here among other places. I can’t testify that what Murray says is true, of course, but Murray himself says has not received any correspondence from Usmanov’s lawyers. They have gone for the easy option of simply censoring his claims by leaning on his web hosts. (The whole article is still available at Indymedia. More: Pickled Politics, Serious Golmal, David T @ Harry’s Place, Iain Dale.)

I have my own experience of this particular web host, namely Fasthosts of Gloucester, since this site was hosted there until 2005, when I got a particularly bad run of trackback spam, which caused their server to slow down, which led to them taking my site off-line pretty quickly. However, they were not so quick to respond to my emails telling them that I had renamed the file in question (the MT trackback script), as I normally did when I got a run of spam, and through this and other incidents, gave the distinct impression that they were clueless about blogging and bloggers’ needs (their support line staff claimed not to have heard of the software I was using, which was pretty well-known). When I did not get my site back up within a few hours, as it should have been, I moved my blog to an American host, something I glad I did in the light of this incident.

I don’t know much about Soviet politics although I believe Craig Murray does. Usmanov claims that his conviction was unjust and that his pardon came “after President Mikhail Gorbachev took office”, which Murray claims is false. Murray claims that he was “a gangster and racketeer who rightly did six years in jail” and that his pardon was facilitated by Islam Karimov, the atrocious present-day ruler of Uzbekistan. Perhaps we are expected not to think much of convictions secured under the old Soviet legal system, in which rulings were often obtained down the phone line to the party office, but surely pardons are just as dubious? After all, any ordinary Soviet citizen unjustly jailed for murder is unlikely to have got a presidential pardon; Gorbachev, when he first came to power, certainly did not set out to reform the Soviet Union out of existence, as he ended up doing. He wanted to make it more efficient, and his early efforts were things like campaigns against excessive vodka drinking. It was the Chernobyl disaster, and the attempt to cover it up that followed, that led to the culture of secrecy becoming untenable.

I hope this leads to a campaign for a reform of this country’s libel laws, which are weighted in favour of the plaintiff, i.e. anyone who makes an accusation about someone in public has to be able to prove it. It is not up to the plaintiff to demonstrate that the accusation is untrue. This is the opposite of libel laws in the USA. (In much of Europe, libel laws are even stricter, sometimes based in criminal law rather than civil law.) While this may be as it should be - it is an extension of being innocent until proven guilty - the way the law operates right now allows those not actively involved in publishing the accusations to be liable. There is a difference between a newspaper publishing a story, which is a conscious decision by the editor (if not always the owner), and a web host’s client publishing a claim on a website without their knowledge. This gives plaintiffs the ability to silence people who know things about them that they would rather others didn’t by cutting off their support network; after all, the ISP cannot substantiate the accusation even if the accuser can, which may well be the case here.

There are other unjust aspects of present English libel law: for example, a plaintiff can sue someone on a no-win, no-fee basis, while a defendant is responsible for his own legal costs. Thus, if a member of a racist party such as the British Nazi Party sues a newspaper, or a trade union, for calling them a racist, it can often be less expensive for the defendant to pay up rather than fight. (This is what happened to the train drivers’ union Aslef in 2006, which paid out £30,000 of its members money to settle a suit brought by a one-time BNP candidate whom they called a racist in their magazine. Libel damages are supposed to reflect damage to one’s reputation, and one would have thought that no BNP member would have much of a reputation to lose; it’s a known fact that the party has a racist heritage and that it has recently switched from attacking Jews and blacks to vilifying the Muslim religious minority.)

I end by saying roughly what I said in a previous entry on a free speech theme: that at a time when British resources have been spent - wasted, some might say - on supporting American interests in the wake of September 11, British citizens do not enjoy the same right to free speech that Americans do; indeed, as with protesting near Parliament and recent laws concerning what we might say about terrorism, free speech has actually suffered under Blair and Brown rather than improved. The upshot is that a section of British industry is losing business to its American competition. Matters which are in the public interest, such as a foreigner of questionable character taking over any large British company, particularly a major football side with the potential for corruption or violence, should be discussed in the open. Clearly some people have a problem with this, which is why, instead of arguing their case on fora which allow them to, namely those which published the claims against them, they seek to simply shut their accusers up.

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