An ornament of a civilised society…

During last week’s brief spat with the MSM over Guido’s naming of another alleged mistress of John Prescott I made the general observation that is the press in this country really had any balls they’d be mounting a campaign against Britian’s appallingly unfair and draconian libel law and not whining about bloggers publishing the odd rumour or two.

So, with that in mind, its nice to see a prime example of our appalling libel laws at work this week in the case of ‘TV hypnotist’ Paul McKenna -vs- Mirror Group Newspapers, over the content of a column by Victor Lewis-Smith in 2003 entitled, "It’s A Load of Doc and Bull"

In this this report, from yesterday, the Times rather nicely takes us through the detail of the case, quoting enough from Lewis-Smith’s article to get a decent picture of the story.

According to the Times:

The High Court was told today that Mr McKenna was pilloried by journalist Victor Lewis-Smith in October 2003, in an article headlined "It’s A Load of Doc and Bull". But the truth was, said Mr McKenna’s lawyers, he studied for 18 months to obtain his doctorate in hypnotherapy in 1997 from Lasalle University, Louisiana, to which he submitted a final, 50,000-word dissertation.

Before going on to note that:

In his article, Mr Lewis-Smith referred to publicity material put out on Mr McKenna’s behalf boasting of his PhD, but not from the "well-respected" Lasalle University of the same name in Philadelphia. The author wrote: "I discovered that his doctorate had been awarded by another Lasalle University, an obscure, degrees-by-post establishment based in Mandeville, Louisiana.

"And, when I rang the university switchboard, I discovered that anyone could be fully doctored by Lasalle within months (no previous qualifications needed), just so long as they could answer the following question correctly: ‘Do you have $2,615, sir?"’

Mr Lewis-Smith said in his article that the principal of the university, Thomas James Kirk, was under investigation by the FBI and later pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges. Soon after that, Mr McKenna’s publicity material suddenly removed all mention of his PhD.

All of which is true, as this passage from the proceeding of the US House of Representatives Banking Committee Hearings in 1999, shows:

(2) La Salle University

Based upon SARs and complaints by victim-students, the New Orleans Office of the FBI initiated an investigation into LaSalle University, Mandeville, Louisiana, a mail order correspondence school which offered external degree studies. The SARs and complaints received concerned the structuring and money laundering by companies and individuals associated with LaSalle. La Salle solicited students through printed advertisements in magazines and major newspapers, had a national and international student registration of over 15,000 students, but later was found to be nothing more than a sophisticated diploma mill not recognized by any collegiate accrediting body. La Salle defrauded unsuspecting students by leading them to believe that they were accredited by the Council on Post Secondary Christian Education (COPCE) located in Washington, D.C. COPCE was established by La Salle management as a further level of deception, leading its students to believe they were attending an accredited university. La Salle acquired approximately $36 million in its multi-tiered ploy to obtain students.

The students being targeted by La Salle were defrauded by over $2 million per semester in student fees paid by check, credit card or bank draft. La Salle deceived the victim-students concerning the cost of tuition. Once the victim-student was enrolled, the management would double charge the draft or credit card of the provider.

La Salle used many shell companies to conceal the source of the income it generated. Victim students were duped into believing that the university had a religious affiliation, and served as a nonprofit institution. Over 12 different bank accounts were located by the FBI-some located in the Cayman Islands, maintained under various company names. The accounts were used by the president of La Salle to buy drugs, produce pornographic movies, and establish a quasi-militia organization with anti-government objectives.

La Salle had evaded local and federal prosecution by operating in various locations, starting in California in 1985 and relocating to Missouri, Nevada, Arizona, and Florida before relocating to Louisiana in 1992. Pursuant to the information provided by SARs and complaints, the FBI executed search warrants in July 1996. The additional evidence produced by the searches allowed the FBI to issue seizure warrants for bank accounts totaling over $10 million. Later, the home of the La Salle president, valued at approximately $2 million, was forfeited.

In the fall of 1997, all management officials of La Salle were convicted of various charges of mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. In 1998, all monies seized by the FBI were forfeited, and returned to the victim-students as restitution.

Which is, in turn, backed up by this 1999 report from World Net Daily

William Tiller was hired by the city of Encinitas, just north of San Diego, in 1996, fresh out of the Marine Corps, to coordinate preparations for Y2K at a salary of $97,000 a year.

Tiller certainly looked well qualified for the position; he boasted not only a bachelor’s and master’s degree, but also two doctorate degrees.

There was just one problem, city officials later learned. Tiller’s resume turned out to be a complete fabrication.

Though Tiller has used different resumes, each has proven to be false. He claimed to have a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master’s in information systems from Strayer University. He also claimed to have a doctorate in computer science from La Salle University as well as a doctorate in systems engineering from Columbia State University.

He picked up one doctorate in a month for a cost of about $3,000. No time in class. No thesis. It was so easy that he didn’t stop with one fake degree, he bought another, and then he faked degrees from a real school.

Strayer University is an accredited university with 12 campuses on the East Coast and headquarters in Virginia. Officials there confirmed that Tiller attended classes for a short time, but never came close to achieving any type of degree.

La Salle University and Columbia State University are well-known diploma mills. Anyone, for a fee, can obtain any degree their heart desires. The degrees are supposedly awarded based on life experience and correspondence work…

… The real La Salle University is a Catholic college outside Philadelphia. The diploma mill version is in Louisiana, where lax laws and loopholes make it a haven for such unaccredited schools.

The founder of La Salle, Thomas Kirk, is now in prison thanks to testimony from his ex-wife. Kirk is a self-proclaimed minister who awarded himself a Ph.D. and J.D.

Sales materials and a video from La Salle and Columbia boasted of graduates in high government and commercial positions. That is the one claim the bogus schools made that has proven to be true…

… Despite the loopholes in state law, investigators from the Louisiana attorney general’s office, along with federal investigators continue to investigate the lucrative scam. One investigator estimated that La Salle has issued 40,000 or more diplomas, with the majority going to government employees.

More than a dozen diploma mills have set up business in Louisiana because of the lenient laws there, according to a prosecutor in the office of Attorney General Richard Ieyoub. He says his office is investigating them all.

Federal investigators say there are thousands of offenders at the federal level, and an untold number at local government levels who use phony degrees to get their jobs and to qualify for higher salaries. Diplomas from bogus colleges and universities can be found on the walls and resumes of employees in the Department of Justice, congressional staff, U.S. Customs, the Department of Defense, NASA, and even the Department of Education. The list includes virtually every government agency.

Many government bureaucracies require advanced degrees as a means to determine who gets higher pay and promotions. The word got around on how to get what was needed quickly and efficiently, resulting in many government employees seeking out diploma mills.

Federal prosecutors who went after La Salle and Columbia were not looking into fraud committed by "graduates." They have also not yet determined whether government funds were used to pay for the degrees.

"They know they got a fake degree, and they continued the fraud by holding it up as legitimate. You’d be amazed at how many actually display the thing on their office wall," said one investigator who did not want to be identified because of on-going investigations.

Despite the fact that records from La Salle were seized containing the identification of federal employees who have the fake degrees, no government agency has yet requested copies of the records for review. The investigator was not surprised and said his office is only going after the school owners and not the degree recipients "for now," he said.

Are there others like Tiller with responsibilities for Y2K preparations in government positions? No one interviewed by WorldNetDaily knew the answer, but many have computer-related degrees so there is a strong likelihood that there are some.

The many documents, letters, and records seized from La Salle reveal that the vast majority of their "graduates" are in the military and other government positions at all levels, including congressional and White House staff.

There is no government oversight to determine the validity of claims by job applicants or those seeking promotions. Despite the mountain of evidence that thousands of government workers are not as qualified as they claim, no steps have been taken to investigate the extent of the problem, prevent it from continuing, or take action against those who have defrauded the public taxpayers.

Despite the efforts of prosecutors, both La Salle and Columbia continue to operate. There are many unaccredited schools that will provide a diploma for little or no effort, and a large sum of cash…

The Times goes on to report:

Subsequently, he [Lewis-Smith] said, the hypnotherapist had obtained a genuine PhD from a genuine business school. But he went on: "His newly-acquired doctorate shouldn’t blind anyone to the fact that the man made his name by reviving on TV the sort of distasteful and humiliating acts that were banned in this country’s theatres in the 1950s."

Which is a rather harsh view, certainly, but one that’s entirely a matter of opinion and nothing at all to do with whether McKenna’s PhD was kosher…

Now, however, we come to nub of the case…

Mr Browne told the judge: "Victor Lewis-Smith and the Mirror pilloried Mr McKenna as a fraud, claiming that he had a doctorate to which he had no honest entitlement. They can’t prove that to be true."

This is a prime example of how libel laws work in this country – the ‘University’ for which McKenna gained his PhD has been categorically shown to have been a sophisticated fraud that was not accreditted to award degrees by any credible academic body, yet McKenna’s claim for libel rests on the presumed inability of the Mirror to demonstrate that he was not entitled to a PhD, not on the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the degree he did obtain, which he used in his advertising material at the time.

The Times goes on:

Counsel said that Mr McKenna, who is dyslexic, sought a doctorate to atone for his failure at school, to make a contribution to the community which would have practical therapeutic benefits and to add value to his business. Far from being able to buy a doctorate, the evidence showed that he was initially rejected by the university for the course.

Lasalle’s modus operandi was to advertise its ‘degree’ in newspapers, something which, for most people, would reasonably set the alarm bells ringing immediately. The apparent fact that McKenna was initially rejected for the course proves nothing whatsoever about the validity of the academic credentials of the supposed ‘University’ nor the value of the ‘degrees’ it was awarding – there are numerous reasons why McKenna might have been rejected to begin with, they may even have looked McKenna up and decided that his public profile in the UK made him too much of a risk, or they may simply have rejected some candidates as a matter of course, just to maintain the veneer of credibility.

Either way – the rejection of his first application prove nothings.

The fact was that, at the end of 1996, it emerged that Lasalle was only accredited by a body called the Council for Postsecondary Christian Education, which turned out to be a fraudulent creation of Mr Kirk. But Mr McKenna did not know this until later after he had submitted his final project.

The university’s lack of accreditation did not mean that it was a "diploma mill" or something that traded degrees for cheques, Mr Browne added. Investigations by the FBI and the US Department of Justice concluded that Kirk had defrauded innocent and unsuspecting students by leading them to believe that their degrees were accredited by a recognised body.

Nowhere does it appear from the Times report on Lewis-Smith’s article, that Lewis-Smith ever explicitly called McKenna a fraud – the article appears to have ambiguous and open to interpretation but neither possible interpretation is particularly flattering on McKenna – if he’s not a fraud – and there is no evidence to suggest that he is – then he’s at least gullible enough to have fallen for a pretty well-known and well-documented scam adn belongs to much the same category of people who fall for things like the 419 money-laundering scam or pyramid schemes, despite these being both well-documented and publicised.

Moreover, we seem to have an interesting difference of opinion between McKenna’s counsel, Mr Browne, who said yesterday that:

The university’s lack of accreditation did not mean that it was a "diploma mill" or something that traded degrees for cheques

And the US House of Representatives, who said in committee that:

La Salle solicited students through printed advertisements in magazines and major newspapers, had a national and international student registration of over 15,000 students, but later was found to be nothing more than a sophisticated diploma mill not recognized by any collegiate accrediting body.

I’m assuming that this won’t have escaped counsel for the Daily Mirror.

The Times also notes that:

Mr McKenna lost a case he brought before the Press Complaints Commission in 2004 but, four days after the adjudication, his solicitors resurrected his legal complaint.

The PCC’s account of McKenna’s complaint is published online, here, from which the adjudication reads as follows:

There were two provisions of Clause 1 especially relevant to this case: that newspapers must take care ‘not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted material’; and that newspapers ‘whilst free to be partisan, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact’.

In this instance, the article was clearly presented as the individual opinion of the journalist concerned – to the effect that the complainant’s degree was ‘bogus’ and obtained from an ‘obscure degrees-by-post’ establishment. Readers would not have been misled into believing that this represented anything other than a partisan view of the matter. Nonetheless, the Commission also had regard to whether the opinion was reasonably based upon fact.

The Commission was impressed by the detail of the newspaper’s submission and considered that it had demonstrated that the columnist had grounds to summarise his views about the university and, therefore, the degree in the way that he did. This was not, of course, to take a view about the merits of the complainant’s thesis itself. In these circumstances, there was no reason for the Commission to interfere with the columnist’s right freely to express his view of the matter. The complaint was rejected.

In coming to this decision, the Commission noted that the article itself did not state that the complainant was complicit in the fraud perpetrated by the university, or that he had obtained his degree knowingly in a bogus fashion or as a direct result of monetary payment. It did not agree with the solicitors’ inference to the contrary, which seemed to be at the heart of the complaint.

That seems to cover much the same ground as McKenna’s claim of libel – the PCC is not, of course, a court of law nor is the process of dealing with a complaint that a newspaper published misleading information the same as dealing with a claim of libel, nevertheless the PCC seems clear in its view that Lewis-Smith did not actually claim that McKenna bought his degree, offered no view on the validity of his thesis as a piece of academic work or was directly complicit in the fraud carried out by the ‘university’ and that his opinion that degree McKenna obtained was ‘bogus’ was reasonably based on fact.

As might be expected, the Times article concludes by noting that:

Mr Browne said: "Very substantial damages are needed to vindicate the claimant of the charge of dishonesty and misleading the public. This is a grave allegation. It is a very substantial aggravation of the libel that it came to be published after a six-year campaign by Mr Lewis-Smith."

Well of course substantial damages are needed – they always are – even though in this case any false impression created could be easily remedied by the simple observations that McKenna was not a fraud, not that Lewis-Smith claimed that he was – but merely a bit of mug punter who would have been better served in his ambitions by the Open University.

Interestingly, the Times also notes that:

Mr McKenna, 43, who now runs a successful self-help practice, whose clients include David Bowie over his aversion to flying and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson over her fear of snakes, was in court to hear his counsel, Desmond Browne QC, open the case.

No one will be able to accuse Mr McKenna, whose blue chip clients also include the advertising giant, Saatchi and the City law firm, Freshfields, of trying to hypnotise the jury because there isn’t one. The case is being heard by Mr Justice Eady alone because of the prolonged examination of documents involved.

So McKenna’s clients include David Bowie, Tara Palmer-Tomkinson (plenty of work there one suspects), Saatchi and Saatchi and ‘City law firm’ Freshfields, aka international law firm, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, whose website describes their UK operation in the following terms:

As one of the principal international financial centres, London is a key market and our reputation here is second to none. Our London office has 894 lawyers, 177 of whom are partners.

Our corporate practice in London is particularly strong and we offer advice on M&A, shares issues, privatisations, international capital markets, joint ventures, asset and project financing, securities, financial services, banking, UK and EU competition law, and employment and pensions law.

We handle all types of dispute resolution, including commercial litigation and international arbitration, and advise on all aspects of international tax, commercial property, insurance, environmental and construction law, telecoms and intellectual property/information technology. We are also very active in many industry sectors, particularly energy and rail.

Our London-based lawyers operate internationally as part of our global practices, which enables us to draw together the best team for the job, regardless of location. We have worked on some of the largest and most prestigious deals in recent years, bringing together multi-disciplinary teams of specialists able to meet the demands of the most complex transactions.

Not bad, then, for a man currently claiming to the court that his reputation has been damaged sufficiently to require ‘very substantial damages’.

Final thoughts…

“Libel actions, when we look at them in perspective, are an ornament of a civilized society. They have replaced, after all, at least in most cases, a resort to weapons in defense of a reputation.” – Henry Anatole Grunwald

When you look at the kind of people who, these days, end up in the courts in libel cases, one has to think that life would be so much more entertaining and enjoyable if duelling pistols were to make a comeback – fuck Big Brother, that’s what I would call real reality TV…

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