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.
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.
The remaining years of Morande’s life were dull by comparison but it still had its colourful moments. Somewhat remarkably, he reinvented himself first as a French government spy and then as a police agent but his taste for debauchery was such that he continued his rakish ways and falling into debt. Having been appointed editor of the Courrier de l’Europe, he became expert in using the press as an instrument of blackmail. With the dramatist Beaumarchais, he took out extensive bets on the gender of the French diplomat and spy, Chevalier d’Eon (although wearing female clothing, d’Eon turned out to be fully male). Most bizarre of all, one of the more curious characters in the infamous diamond necklace affair, the Count de Cagliostro, challenged him to a duel by suckling pig. Morande declined the invitation.
Yet, for all Morande’s venality and malice, Burrows wants to suggest that there was more to his exploits than a taste for salacious slander and low life. Beneath the tales of sodomy and sexual depravity, in other words, there lurked an ideology of patriotic reform and a commitment to the principles of constitutional monarchy. Exposing the sexual foibles of priests and nobles, of kings and their mistresses, to irreverent and sacrilegious ridicule, it seems, was primarily a means of attacking ministerial despotism. If this was evident in the Armour-Plated Gazetteer — published, as Burrows points out, at the time of the so-called Maupeou crisis, which had pitted the government against the recalcitrant parlements — then it was even more so in Morande’s journalism during the years immediately prior to and during the Revolution of 1789. Indeed, Burrows sees Morande as a forerunner of the self-styled revolutionary tribunes of the people.
At this point, one begins to wonder what the French monarchy did to deserve enemies like this. For, as Burrows himself concedes, the process begun by Morande’s slanderous and sexually salacious satires against Madame du Barry ended in a “grotesque, murderous carnival of revolution” where Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France, was charged with incest and her favourite, the Princess de Lamballe, reportedly had her sexual organs and breasts paraded on pikes. Luckily for Morande, he survived the carnage, dying peacefully in his sleep in 1805. Many of his victims, including a terrified Madame du Barry, dragged off screaming to the guillotine, were not so fortunate.
Burrows ends his book by suggesting that Morande’s biography, if it is a parable, is one for our times. He continues by asking what would become of a man of Morande’s talents in today’s egalitarian, democratic and consumerist society. Would he have been a tabloid journalist or an internet blogger, a political commentator or celebrity satirist? Would his youthful misdemeanours have forced him into a life of vice and crime? Believe me, whatever the answer, Morande (to use the language that he himself appreciated) would be a scumbag. He would make Jonathan Ross look like a saint and John Terry and Ashley Cole seem like angels. If he wasn’t running a prostitution ring, he’d be on our television screens making tasteless wisecracks about the private life of some hapless politician or in our newspapers spreading gossip about the latest talentless celebrity. And herein might lie the problem. Some years ago, the editor of the Guardian, Alan Rusbridger, said that he would willingly forgo the freedom to expose the love-life of a BBC weather forecaster to prurient eyes if it meant that the courts would give greater protection to newspapers and broadcasters reporting corruption or dishonesty in public life. A modern-day Morande — and there have been many of them — would not acknowledge or understand the difference between the two cases. In short, if our libel laws are a disgrace and in need of radical reform, the press is not entirely without blame. It is not only the courts that need to learn to treat free speech with respect.