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England's Anti-Democratic Libel Laws

Many years ago, a diplomat from an African nation famous for its cruelty and barbarism toward dissenters approached me at a dinner party to discuss his least favorite topic: the foreign press. His country of origin, said the diplomat, had been reviled in the media—not the media people of his own nation of course, they’d been taken care of, but those who toiled for the vicious foreign media. In fact certain members of his country’s leadership had been smeared so consistently and unfairly, added the diplomat, that there was little left for them to do but salve their shredded egos with lawsuits. Which would also, he assured me, take place abroad.

And these leaders knew exactly where to go.

“What do you think of England?” asked the diplomat before hastily answering his own question. “It’s a democracy with a free press! And yet, this is a nation that is very fair towards those who have been insulted.”

Since I knew what was coming—libel suits threatened, often pursued, apologies offered and then thousands upon thousands of British pounds demanded (and almost invariably paid) in order to soothe the wounded feelings of tyrants, liars, murderers, rapists, cheats, conmen, and idiots—I said what I believed. Of all the so-called democracies in the world, the UK is the least free. This is because of its libel laws, which encourage not only British subjects to pursue huge damages but just about anyone in the universe who has been criticized anywhere in the universe.

It’s what I believed back then, during a year when the married novelist Jeffrey Archer sued and bankrupted a British newspaper for claiming he paid off a prostitute—which he had. It’s what I teach in journalism classes in Italy (which isn’t exactly a free-speech haven, either, but at least so-called offenses run cheaper there). It is what I believed more than a decade ago when Deborah Lipstadt, a highly respected American historian, was sued in a London court by a Holocaust denier for writing that he was a Holocaust denier. In a rare instance of British libel justice, the historian won, but only after spending six years and a fortune in her defense—and only after her British publisher left her with a $100,000 legal bill.

And it is, above all, what I believe now, thanks to Lord McAlpine. McAlpine is a 70-year-old former Tory party treasurer, who is not a liar, a murder, or a rapist. But he is a greedy jerk. And in Britain greedy jerks do phenomenally well in the courts, even when they don’t live in Britain.

A few weeks ago, McAlpine, who happens to live in Italy, was wrongly accused by the British Broadcasting Corporation of being a child-molester. Without delving overmuch into the quality of the BBC’s investigative techniques (not so great), let’s just say that after that major blunder, the network did the right things. It apologized straight away. It paid McAlpine 185,000 pounds. Then ITV, which had also erred, offered McAlpine another hefty sum: 125,000 pounds as well as “an unreserved apology,” to quote that network.

In Italy, as the journalist Peter Preston has pointed out, McAlpine would have received 1,700 pounds for that kind of defamation had he gone to court. However, McAlpine wasn’t, for some reason, really unhappy about his Italian reputation. It was his British reputation that gave him a substantially thickened wallet and backbone: half a million dollars, lots of groveling from his erstwhile detractors, his pink grinning face in the British papers. So you’d think he’d be satisfied.

But Lord McAlpine is not satisfied.

His lawyer is currently going after Twitter tweeters for what he calls “suitable damages.” As of this writing, a total of 10,000 people, many of whom simply reiterated what they’d heard on the BBC, are in his sights.

Until recently it had been generally assumed, even in the backwards UK, that what you tweet on Twitter, however nasty or insulting, is less vulnerable to a lawsuit than what you might write in a book or say on the airwaves after you had more time to think things over. But with this new libel roundup, the law may well be expanded. “It’s no defense to say you had no idea” you were wrong, Ruth Collard, a media lawyer, told Bloomberg.

In the UK of course, there are many who insist that it is precisely because the British media is so irresponsible and ungovernable that draconian libel laws are needed. But I would argue just the opposite. Fear and threats of certain punishment tend to infantilize the press. That is, I have always suspected, why Murdoch newspapers hacked into the phones and e-mails of celebrities: to provide quiet but incontrovertible backup in the event of an expensive libel suit. That is what happens when liars are encouraged to lie, and the prosperous prompted to reap even greater rewards from legal threats.

Right now a British judge, of all people, is about to rule on whether or not a new regulatory body should be set up to control the media. “It is perfectly possible to have an effective regulator … without placing ourselves on a slippery slope to Zimbabwe,” one British journalism professor said in today’s Wall Street Journal.

But actually it is not. Zimbabwe is exactly what occurs when an already weakened press opens itself up to the whims of politicians. Zimbabwe can be anywhere.

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