Better to write on your knees then get sued on your feet?

The decision by blogger Jackie Danicki to publish a photograph of a man she alleges to have assaulted her on a tube train (Jackie’s site is down at present, so no direct link) and request help in identifying her attacker appears to have prompted the usual bout of harumphing from one of two journalists about the ‘ethical standards‘ of bloggers, including, naturally, all the usual dire warnings about the risks arising from Britain’s notably pernicious libel laws, as if to suggest those of lacking the big fat cheque books of the media barons to cover our arses are we’re not already aware of such things.

We are… and while the professionals run for cover – according to Greg Palast, the Guardian’s editorial system will not accept the submission of an article unless the journalist answers the question ‘Lawyered?’ – we, out here on the electronic frontier, hold true to the words of Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington: ‘Publish and be damned’.

There is something rather unattractive about these occasional bouts of blog envy on the part of the ‘professionals’, not simply in the sense that such articles often pause, to circle like a vulture, over the assertion that it is only a matter of time until a blogger finds themselves sued for libel, but rather that they exude an aura of servility in the face of a law on defamation so unjust and biased toward the plaintiff as to induce even Americans to eschew the far richer pickings of their own heavily litigious legal system and view Britain as the jurisdiction of choice for those seeking redress for an alleged slur on their precious reputation.

To criticise bloggers for marching fearlessly in those realms where they, themselves, fear to tread seems, to me at least, to be less an assertion of their professional (and ethical) pre-eminence and more an act of abasement, a tugging of the journalistic forelock as they prostrate themselves before the onmipotent god of public repute – or as Palast refers to it, ‘kissing the censor’s whip‘.

By any reasonable measure, Britain’s libel laws operate in a manner entirely contrary to every sacred principle of British justice.

Only in a libel case does the defendent enter the court under a presumption of guilt that requires them to prove the truth of their remarks, while the plaintiff need only assert that the remarks are untrue without any requirement for evidence to support such an assertion – the sole burden of proof rests on the defendent.
In a libel action, the notion of equality before the law becomes entirely meaningless, unless one has the wherewithall to engage legal counsel from one’s own resources.

Whether one is the plaintiff or defendant in a libel action, there has been, until recently, no access to legal aid for those who cannot afford to engage legal counsel, and although this position will may change slightly as a consequence of this practice having been ruled incompatible with Human Rights, it will change only grudgingly and only where, in the sole opinion of the state, a public interest is clearly served.

Unless one is extremely fortunate, therefore, libel remains the apex and epitomy of the idea that there is one law for the rich; as much a means by which the venal and corrupt may use their personal or corporate wealth to suppress dissent, contrary opinion and even the truth, as it is a defender of reputation, and another for poor, for whom the outrageous cost of litigation ensures that the defence of reputation is a concept far beyond their personal means.

Britain’s libel laws amount to nothing more or less than the privatisation of censorship for the benefit and protection of the rich.

However well-intentioned the author, the publication by professional journalists of acres of self-righteous screed on the subject of professional ethics is a practice that rarely fails to stick in one’s craw.

Journalism is both ruthless in its exploitation of the iniquities of Britain’s libel laws for the benefit or their employers – one need only read a tabloid newspaper or two, especially on Sunday, to see this at work – and its not-always-unwilling collaborator in kowtowing before the lawyers of the wealthy and powerful even when it knows, deep in its marrow, that it has its hands on the truth (but not conclusive evidence of the truth).

Had it the courage of the professed convictions, it would not be lecturing bloggers on ethics but challenging the very laws that coerce it into a state of enforced hypocrisy, but then such a challenge would be a double-edged sword, it would remove some of the existing legal shackles from investigative journalism, in particular, but also open the way for the great unwashed to obtain redress for the predations of the tabloids.

Therein lies the great paradox of Britain’s libel laws. Being contrived to protect the wealthy, amongst those who benefit from its iniquities as the selfsame media barons in whose employ many journalists ply their trade. To stand up openly for freedom of expression and demand that Britain’s libel laws be revised in the interests of equity and justice is, quite literally, to risk biting the hand that feeds – and we can’t have that, can we?

Journalists may be compromised in putting up such a challenge, but bloggers (fortunately) are not, and as the Downing Street website not kindly permits one to direction petition the PM,  I thought take the opportunity to submit a petition of my own, as follows:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to revise Britain’s libel/defamation laws in such a manner as to support and not abridge freedom of expression.

Britain’s libel laws are amongst the most restrictive and inequitable to found in any Western liberal democracy – so bad that even Americans now come to the UK to sue for libel – and amount to no more than the privatisation of censorship.

We call for them to be amended in line with approach to libel adopted by the US, in which the burden of proof lies the accuser and not the defendent – as is the case in the UK – and to ensure that Britian’s libel laws support and facilitate free expression and do not act to suppress the expression of legitimately held opinion and dissent.

As soon as its been approved, I’ll post the requisite link for anyone who’d care to sign up.

  • I’ll sign that. drop by my site and post as a comment on one of my posts when you have it up and I’ll nip over and add my name.

    good petition. much better than the fat tax.

  • Interesting, but I am not ‘criticise bloggers for marching fearlessly in those realms where they, themselves, fear to tread’ … I am questioning those people who have picked up – and often embellished – Jackie’s story without having any way of knowing whether or not it is true. In my view that is not fearless, it is irresponsible.

  • Only in a libel case does the defendant enter the court under a presumption of guilt that requires them to prove the truth of their remarks, while the plaintiff need only assert that the remarks are untrue without any requirement for evidence to support such an assertion – the sole burden of proof rests on the defendant.

    The reverse burden of proof also applies in terrorism cases e.g. the catch all Terrorism Act 2000 section 57 Possession for a terrorist purpose and section 58 Collection of information – you have to prove that the articles or documents oor data in your possession is for innocent purposes, rather than the prosecution having to prove that they are malicious.

    Similarly the Terrorism Act 2006 section 1 Encouragement of terrorism

    The soon to come into force (early next year ?) Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 Part III section 49 Notices requiring disclosure also forces you to prove that you have genuinely forgotten your decryption key etc.

  • Philip Young – people are entitled to draw their own conclusions. If this was your sister would you tell her that for you to help catch the perp is irresponsible? I wouldn’t. Having accepted that you would do it in theory, then it’s just a case of where you draw the line. Reading JD’s blog and comments, it’s freaking obvious that the pictured youth needs to be brought in for questioning. The only reason I haven’t put anything up is because I am not a London blogger, so I think that I’ll leave it to the people that can be effective.