Only recently, the British press found itself in unanimous agreement about the need for a radical reform of the country's libel laws. The occasion of this unanimity was the decision of three Appeal Court judges to overturn an earlier court ruling that had sought to prevent the science writer Simon Singh from voicing criticism of "bogus treatments" offered by the British Chiropractic Association. The celebration that greeted this landmark decision was all the greater because it was acknowledged that London had become the libel capital of the world. In an age of libel tourism, our newspaper leader columns proclaimed, the rich and the powerful were using English libel law to silence the free expression of thought and opinion.
Reading Simon Burrows's book about the libeller and blackmailer Charles Thévenau, one is immediately struck by the contrast between the disproportionate restrictions upon free speech now operating in Britain and the general free-for-all of 18th-century London. Then, if not now, the British populace held its traditional liberties dear and both the government and the courts only set about their violation with considerable trepidation. In those circumstances, a culture of calumny was the price to be paid for free speech.
There can be no doubt that Morande was a master of his trade. A gambler, liar and libertine, he arrived in London from France in 1770 and immediately began a life of debauchery, scandalmongery and extortion. In the following year, he published what Burrows refers to as his masterpiece: The Gazetier cuirassé (or Armour-Plated Gazetteer). According to Burrows, this document was a heady mixture of political satire, scurrilous gossip, innuendo and sexual defamation. It slandered and libelled no fewer than 256 individuals, groups or corporations, and included among its targets courtiers, clergy, literary figures, aristocrats, army officers, prostitutes, women of loose morals and "a host of sodomites and tribads". The intention was to offend as much as it was to amuse, and this it succeeded in doing in equal measure. By all accounts it sold well, making Morande more than £800 and running to five editions by 1785.
Charles Thévenau de Morande: A life of debauchery and scandal
But this was only a prelude to Morande's most daring undertaking: the attempt — successful, as it turned out — to blackmail Louis XV and his mistress, Madame du Barry. The plan was as audacious as it was malicious. Safe in his haven in London, Morande wrote a new work — Secret Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Historical Researches on the Adventures of Madame la Countess du Barry from her Cradle until the bed of Honour — and when he had done so, offered not to publish it but at a price. Here, of course, was a story where there was plenty of dirt to be dug up and Morande promised fresh revelations on Madame du Barry's sordid past. Certainly, it seemed likely to contain enough authentic detail to give cause for worry at the French court. The result was that after two years of tense negotiations and repeated threats to his life and liberty, 6,000 volumes of the Secret Memoirs were burned in Marylebone and Morande found himself in the money. A few days later, Louis XV died of smallpox and Madame du Barry was exiled from court.