Thursday, May 24, 2007

Why libel makes an editor's knees go weak

As part of last Wednesday's miscellany of notes, comments, and links, I originally had a short paragraph which ran as follows:
Live in the UK? Write stuff? Worried about libel? Well you bloody well ought to be.
And I included a link to a useful article on libel which had appeared in the Times on 14 May. But then, when I was checking the links after I had published the post on the blog, I noticed that the Times article was no longer available online. So I deleted my own brief paragraph on the subject of libel, since it wasn't much use without the link.

Today, while reading me latest issue of Private Eye (a UK magazine which is almost alone in being willing to tell the truth about anything), I found an explanation for what had happened.

Heather Brooke, who wrote the Times piece on 14 May, began her article as follows:
The libel laws are an abomination. They favour rich, litigious bullies at the expense of freedom of expression.
All of which is undeniably true, in my opinion; and the Eye suggests that this opinion is broadly shared by most journalists and many lawyers.

To make her point clear, Brooke quoted as an instance the case of a child-care expert who sued a website which, allegedly, libelled her. She forced the owners to apologise and made them pay for part of her legal fees.

According to the Eye, the child-care expert also read Heather Brooke's Times article, decided that she didn't like that either, and got her lawyers to threaten legal action. So the Times promptly took the article off the web site. Which is why I couldn't link to it, and why I deleted my own comment on the situation.

Well now.... This is where, as of posting this post (a point which I emphasise, in case some of the links don't work if and when you click on them) things get a bit complicated.

The name of the child-care expert concerned is Gina Ford. Wikipedia has a page on her. The Wikipedia entry also has a brief summary of her case against the web site, which is called Mumsnet.

A Google search for "Gina Ford" + Mumsnet reveals that on 9 August Gina Ford issued, and posted on her own official web site, a statement about her position vis a vis Mumsnet. You can find (as of when I write this) a copy of the Ford web-site page, carrying this statement, in the Google cache. However, if you follow Google's link to the current version of that same page, you get a blank. At least in both of the browsers that I use.

Just to give you a view of the other side of this argument (courtesy of the Guardian), perhaps you ought to look at what Justine Roberts, one of the co-founders of Mumsnet, has to say.

If you have time and patience to pursue any of this any further (which, frankly, I do not recommend), you could try reading a summary provided by Blaise Grimes-Viort -- plus the comments from his readers. (After some earlier stuff on Big Brother, you will find that he gets to the lovely and delightful Ms Ford in due course. And he ain't too impressed.)

But now, perhaps, you begin to see why I drafted, then deleted, and now reinstate, my own two pennorth on the subject of libel:
Live in the UK? Write stuff? Worried about libel? Well you bloody well ought to be.
If you really want to know more, trawl through some of my earlier posts about defaming the allegedly innocent, notably my comments on the life of the king of libel, Peter Carter-Ruck.


Anonymous said...

Just for my information, but you're writing this on blogger/blogspot. Which technically is owned by Google, an American company. So, if you'd written something considered libellous, wouldn't the American laws apply, since those words were published in the US, or by an American company?

Rivs said...

They can all sue me - I'm a struggling novelist and have no money anyway - what's one more debt!!

Anonymous said...

The saga continues...

One can certainly see where George Orwell got his ideas for the Ministry of Truth and the constant re-writing of history. England's a funny old country.

Anonymous said...

Well, I got cross-eyed just trying to figure out what even started the row in the first place.

Anonymous said...

In John Braine's how to guide 'Writing a Novel' he refers to a novel which was suppressed on the grounds of libel, and as a result there is a gap in the twentieth century novel which will never be rectified. (I am paraphrasing quite roughly). Do you have any idea what the book that was suppressed is?

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