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The legal eagles are circling…

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

…and the MPs are not far behind.

I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that journalists have been scoring a lot of own goals recently.

First there was the Carl Jefferies coverage, as textbook a case of contempt of court as ever flipped Leonard Cyril James McNae’s horsehair wig. The phone hacking “scandal” rumbles on. Little noticed but surely ominous was the rare instance of an appeal court judge, Lord Justice Sedley, successfully suing the Daily Telegraph for libel. A Daily Star journalist resigns in a very public huff, revealing in his wake that he made up stories about slebs (hardly news, I know, but the public fallout has yet to be felt).

Meanwhile the government’s draft libel law is published today. While on the face of it, the law is good for journalists and journalism – cracking down on the iniquitous trade in “libel tourism”, incorporating Reynolds Defence as part of a defence of “honest opinion” (replacing “fair comment”) and attempting to clear a path through the legalistic fug of internet libel.

But this is only a draft bill. What will happen when the MPs and the Lords come to debate it is another matter. It should surprise no-one if the above matters were not raised and some attempt is made to deal with some, if not all, of them.

For an interesting insight into what is going through lawyerly minds regarding the media at the moment, I recommend this podcast discussion from the Head of Legal blog. It’s rather lengthy, so you might want to leave aside half-an-hour to listen to it. The media stuff starts at about 24:20. (The “world’s worst tennis player” they mention is this bloke.)

 

The Yanks lead the charge

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

President Obama has signed into US law the Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act – aka the Speech Act – effectively protecting American journalists, authors and academics from libel tourism.

This is the detestable practice of overseas libel claimants using overseas legislation to sue overseas authors. And the No 1 libel tourism hotspot is, of course, the UK.

The spur to the Yanks’ action was the egregious case of American academic Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in London by an Saudi billionaire businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz over her book Funding Evil, even though the book was neither published nor marketed here.

But because it sold a whopping 23 copies in the UK – mostly over the internet –Mahfouz was allowed to sue her in the High Court here under the UK’s Carling  libel laws (probably the strictest in the world).

Rachel Ehrenfeld

Rachel Ehrenfeld: Mugged by a libel tourist

Ehrenfeld, a director of the American Center for Democracy, stoutly refused to acknowledge the trial, as any red-blooded American citizen who’s rather fond of the First Amendment should, but was ordered to pay £10,000 damages plus costs anyway.

Ehrenfeld fought back, countersuing Mahfouz in the New York to prevent the English court’s ruling being enforced. However, when the case was dismissed (because the NY court decided it had no jurisdiction over Mahfouz, a foreign national), the NY State Legislature quickly passed a law giving the Big Apple’s courts such jurisdiction over foreign libel plaintiffs who sued New York authors and publishers. Several US states passed similar legislation. The Speech Act now makes it national.

Well, the US has done the necessary to protect its citizens: now it’s surely time for the UK to clean up its act. The coalition has made the right noises about reforming the UK’s vicious and rapacious libel laws, which even such welcome developments as Reynolds Defence have hardly blunted. But more than just noises are needed.

Curiously, the UK’s libel tourist-friendly laws have fans, not all of them members of Carter-Ruck. One of them is former law lord, Lord Hoffmann, who in a speech to the Inner Temple in February this year, defended the practice, attacked the proposed Speech legislation and thought it relevant to the issue to mention Dr Ehrenfeld was born in Israel, that she had “firm views on the Palestine question” and  thought “the British to be soft on terrorism”. Read the whole rank, ghastly thing here.

Khalid bin Mahfouz died of a heart attack in August last year. Leonard Hubert “Lenny” Hoffmann, Baron Hoffmann, is, sad to relate, still with us. Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke needs to put Hoffmann and those grasping legal chums who agree with him in their place, slam shut the libel tourism loopholes and put freedom of speech on the same protected footing it enjoys in the US.

Of course, politicians have in the past been loathe to clean up England and Wales’s libel laws, primarily because they’ve been such grateful beneficiaries of them.

However, with almost all politicians jumping on the blog bandwagon at the moment, it’s surely only a matter of time before the inevitable threats of legal action start rolling in. That will probably focus their minds on the problem wonderfully.

Well, maybe they spelt the names correctly…

May 2, 2010 Leave a comment
take a break magazine

Gateway to libel hell

Sometimes you read such an all-encompassing apology in a libel case, you’re left wondering: “Well, if all that was wrong, was there anything at all that was right?”

Such is the case in this story at Press Gazette:

A woman and her partner accepted “substantial” damages from Take a Break magazine over a story which alleged that they conspired to get her former lover jailed by giving police false information.

Mrs Joyce Pinfield and partner David Valentine sued over a story which appeared in the magazine on April 5, 2007, under the headline “Yes, I framed you, darling”.

“The article detailed the relationship between Paul Eagles and his former lover Joyce Pinfield and her ongoing relationship with David Valentine,” Tim Atkinson, for Mrs Pinfield and Mr Valentine, told Mr Justice Eady at the High Court on April 21.

The magazine was told, and accepted, that a number of statements in the story were inaccurate.

“The defendant is happy to make clear that Mrs Pinfield and Mr Valentine did not conspire to put Mr Eagles in jail by providing false information to the police and to the fraud office and that Mr Valentine did not charges Mr Eagles over benefit fraud in bad faith,” Mr Atkinson said.

“The defendant also accepts that Mrs Pinfield did not take advantage of the situation to persuade Mr Eagles to sell his share of the business at rock bottom prices, that Mr Valentine and Mrs Pinfield did not trick Mr Eagles into coming into Mrs Pinfield’s house and that Mr Valentine did not attack Mr Eagles there (and Mrs Pinfield did not approve of any such attack.”

The defendant apologised to Pinfield and Valentine for the damage or distress caused by the article, and had agreed to pay them damages and their legal costs, he added.

Ian Helme, for the magazine, repeated its regret over publication of the article.

Naturally, one’s thoughts turn to how such a monumental cock-up occurred in the first place. And just as naturally, the answer that comes most readily to mind is not one that I’m prepared to spell out here. Having been unemployed for a year, I’m in no position to pay out any damages, substantial or otherwise. But since I have a lot of time on my hands at present, I may as well fill some of it in reacquainting myself with the salient facts of Elton John v. The Sun.

Categories: cock-ups, Libel Tags: , ,