The Ladybird Guide to Libel Reform

This has been a bad week for freedom of expression in Britain but a useful one as well because it’s two most serious enemies – money power and religious terror – have been in plain view.

   First, the money. The BBC folded in the face of libel threats from Trafigura, the charming multi-national which dumped waste off the Ivory Coast and whose lawyers – Carter Ruck, inevitably – not only tried to silence the entire national press but Parliament as well. The corporation’s refusal to challenge it and by extension the libel law, which so favours the wealthy, has infuriated every journalist and editor I have spoken to. Newspaper finances are collapsing, yet good editors still take cases to court. The BBC’s management might have joined them. Unlike their competitors, they enjoy a guaranteed income – the tidy sum of £3 billion a year. They could have afforded the £3 million cost of a libel case, and ought to have looked at Simon Singh, Peter Wilmshurst and others who are running the risk of personal bankruptcy in order to fight for reform. I think they and their supporters will win. As Jack of Kent points out, politicians are moving and there are signs that the senior judiciary are starting to worry about the growing national and international contempt for the law they preside over.

  If we do get reform, BBC managers will benefit from fights won by better and braver men and women, whom they were not prepared to stand by when it might of made a difference. I am afraid the Trafigura climbdown reveals the BBC to be a parasitical organisation, which profits from the sacrifices of others.

   Meanwhile Index on Censorship, which is heavily involved in the libel reform campaign, is facing a censorship crisis of its own. David T explains.

   The current edition of Index on Censorship magazine carries an interview with Jytte Klausen about her book The Cartoons that Shook the World: an intelligent look at the MoToons affair. The editor of Index on Censorship wanted to publish these cartoons to illustrate the article.

Some of the most controversial cartoons of Mohammed could be read as offensive and racist stereotypes of Muslims. They could equally be read as critiques of jihadists who embrace and promote violence in the name of their religion. However, the bulk of the cartoons could in no way be regarded as racist, and provided an intelligent commentary on religious extremism, and on the fear that threats of religious violence engender. That, after all, was their primary purpose.

No matter. Months after these cartoons were published, two self-proclaimed Imams, one of whom had a history of violence, shopped the cartoons around the Middle East, adding a few extra pictures – one of a pig impersonating competition in France, which they falsely claimed was a depiction of Mohammed – where the campaign was adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood. The MoToon affair began.

Now, you would expect Index on Censorship to stand up for its Editor, Jo Glanville. You’d expect it to oppose censorship, and stand up for freedom of expression.

Its trustees did the opposite.

Index’s chairman, Jonathan Dimbleby ordered the cartoons to be censored citing concerns for staff safety. I’m not sure what I would do in the same circumstances. But it strikes me as telling that Dimbleby and everyone else involved took it as a given that religious murderers would indeed attack the Index offices if it printed material that offended their delicate sensibilities. Their behaviour shows yet again that tear of Islamist violence is the great, unacknowledged chilling factor in British public life. The one part of the story I don’t like is Dimbleby and all but one of the other trustees taking it upon themselves to override the independence of Index’s editor. I’ve met Dimbleby a few times and liked him, but as the example of Trafigura shows, BBC men are not the best people to have around you when issues of principle are at stake.

What, I can hear you asking, can I do to help? Funnily enough, I have two answers.

1.      Sign the libel reform petition here 

2.      Read the Skeptic blogger’s Crispian Jago’s Ladybird Book of Chiropractic Treatment & English Libel Law, which explains why the Simon Singh case is essential for freedom of expression in terms so simple even Mr Justice Eady should be able to understand them.


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