Free speech comes dear
Libel laws mean no one messes with big, litigious companies
By George Monbiot from the Guardian (London) Thursday October 8, 1998
You can't blame the printers of the Ecologist magazine for getting cold feet. They knew that, expensive as the decision to pulp October's edition would be for them, it was far cheaper than being sued by the company the magazine criticised. Monsanto is becoming the new McDonalds, using civil law to intimidate its critics. Just three weeks ago, it obtained an injunction against the "Genetix Snowball" movement. If anyone, anywhere, damages its crops, the movement's press officer can be sued for incitement. Small printers don't mess with big, litigious corporations.
Britain's libel laws, the most draconian in the world, establish the limits within which public discussion can take place. Only public bodies, the poor and the powerless can be fearlessly exposed. The rich and powerful must, by law, be handled with the utmost circumspection. Tuesday's Today programme treated us to a demonstration of precisely what this means. Sir Clive Thompson, the head of the CBI, was interviewed about Britain's trade mission to China. He was asked whether he felt that investing in China raised any ethical problems. Without a hint of irony he snapped, "CBI members always trade ethically, as you know."
Had a politician made such a bovine claim, he would have faced a barrage of hostile challenges, but the interviewer meekly passed on to the next question. To have asked about Shell's treatment of tribal people in Nigeria, about BP's connections with paramilitaries in Colombia, or, for that matter, about the British firms using forced labour in China would have been to court disaster. A mere equivocal inference would have enabled the corporations to sue the Today Programme for everything it possessed.@
The following item concerned the Birmingham Northern Relief Road. The reporter blithely repeated the police allegation that protesters against the road have booby-trapped the houses they've occupied. It's a charge made again and again by a force which takes its propaganda seriously, and proved, again and again, to be untrue. But the protesters are not incorporated and possess no money: they can't, in other words, sue for libel, so, in the absence of a cheap and equitable means of redress, they can be maligned with impunity.
The libel laws are as effective a barrier to free speech in Britain as government intervention is in Indonesia. And, in the best authoritarian tradition, they rely for their routine observance not upon enforcement, but upon self-censorship. Surrounded by the truths that dare not speak their names, we weave the public life of the nation into a single seamless lie.@
It's partly because of the libel laws that investigative journalism is all but dead in Britain. On the same day last week that the Ecologist learnt that its issue had been pulped, the Police Federation won its suit against World in Action, forcing Granada TV to pay pounds1.5 million in costs and damages. It's the second time the programme has been successfully sued this year. In March, Marks and Spencer went to court over allegations about child labour in the Moroccan factories making its clothes. After the case its chief executive claimed "we have been vindicated ... our reputation has been restored". In truth, Marks and Spencer won because World in Action had wrongly inferred that it knew about the child labour, not because no child labour was being used.
But these suits effectively spell the end of the series, which was already struggling against a corporate television culture which cannot see the point of investigative journalism. It will, it seems, be replaced by a current affairs programme hosted by Trevor McDonald, and likely to be even less threatening to big business than News at Ten.
The libel laws are unfair in every particular. The burden of proof rests on the defendants, while the information they require rests with the plaintiffs. However poor the defendants might be, they are not entitled to legal aid. Everyone in the publication chain can be sued: the author, the editor, the publisher, the printer, the distributer, the newsagents, even the libraries which stock the offending publications. So everyone works to ensure that the rich and powerful couldn't possibly be harmed by their material.
The courts accept that government bodies shouldn't be allowed to sue for libel, because that would have devastating consequences for freedom of speech. In America, the judiciary has ensured that big business is subject to the same restrictions, as its impact on public life is just as profound as the government's. Until we do the same, free speech will remain one of Britain's most expensive commodities.