A look at how libel laws and libel tourism can affect free speech and journalism *
By Simon Singh
The battle for libel reform has only begun
In 2008, I published an article in the Guardian questioning whether chiropractors should be treating various childhood conditions. I was then sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association, which helped ignite the debate over libel reform, and whether the courts are stifling scientific debate.
For the last two years, my legal position seemed pretty grim, largely owing to the state of our libel laws. Yesterday, however, the court of appeal ruled in my favour by agreeing that my article is about recklessness, not dishonesty, and that I could use the more flexible defence of fair comment. Suddenly it seems I can mount a successful defence. Does this mean that libel reform is no longer necessary?
Unfortunately, the English libel system is still notoriously hostile to journalists, and the case for reform remains as strong as ever. Indeed, my case alone demonstrates many of the problems.
First of all, yesterday’s decision was only a ruling on potential defences and the meaning of my article, so I have not won yet. Indeed, the case could continue for another two years and run for four years in total. The libel process is painfully slow, and most defendants are not in a position to put their lives on hold for several years. Instead, they back down and apologise for articles that are actually accurate and important.
Second, merely deciding the potential defences and meaning of my article has cost both parties a total of £200,000. Such minor legal technicalities should not be so expensive. Thankfully, it will be the chiropractors who largely meet the bill for this, but they will dispute some of my legal costs, and I could easily be left £20,000 out of pocket. And there is an associated loss of income, because I devoted most of the last two years to the case.
The total cost of a libel trial can easily run to £1m, so a journalist threatened with libel has to be prepared to risk losing everything. It might be a matter of bluff by the claimant, but any journalist who carries on with this poker game has to be either unhinged or have a healthy bank balance. Personally, I am doubly blessed because my bank balance is OK and I am slightly unhinged.
In many other countries, large corporations cannot bully journalists and sue for libel, but they can sue for so-called malicious falsehood, which protects parties from reckless and scurrilous journalism. The benefit of such a system is a fairer balance, with journalists no longer being terrified to challenge multibillion-dollar companies as long as their article is written honestly and responsibly.
There are numerous other problems with English libel law – such as the fact that journalists are guilty until proven innocent, the lack of a robust statutory public interest defence, and London’s reputation as a libel tourism destination.
Until these problems are addressed, England will remain a haven for those who wish to crush free speech. “The law of libel has served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work.”
Evony drops libel case against British blogger Bruce Everiss
Lawsuit brought against outspoken games veteran is dropped as Evony witness evidence is queried
Evony, the American-registered games company that was suing the British games blogger Bruce Everiss for libel in an Australian court over a series of highly critical blog posts, has dramatically dropped its case after just two days of hearings.
The company abruptly abandoned its case against Everiss, which was being heard in the supreme court in Sydney, halfway through the second day of the case – and is now facing a legal bill of A$114,000 (£68,800) for the defence’s costs.
In a statement put out by Benjamin Gifford, the “vice development director” of Evony’s legal and intellectual property strategic division, the company said that it would not pursue the case in Australia or elsewhere. He told the Guardian that the decision had been driven by criticism from players of the game. “A lot of our players expressed opinions about the lawsuit,” he said, “and we reacted to that.”
Everiss, who lives in Coventry, declared himself “relieved” but noted that a quirk of the Australian legal process means that the case is not concluded until Evony pays a second tranche of A$80,000 of costs by 12 April. If it does not, the case reconvenes.
Sources from the case suggested that Evony did not want the publicity to overshadow its launch of the next version of its game, Evony: Age II, which is due for release imminently.
Everiss, a 30-year veteran of the UK games industry, has posted a series of blogposts on his bruceongames.com site since last summer in which he has said that Evony had previously been owned by a Chinese company, UMGE, and that it was linked to a Chinese “gold farming” business – which gets low-paid workers to earn virtual money in online games such as World of Warcraft, and then sells it, against the game’s rules, to other players. He has also detailed connections between Evony’s owners and a company being sued by Microsoft for alleged click fraud on search engine adverts.
Evony denied the claims at the time and launched a furious legal attack on Everiss – and then to the surprise of many chose to pursue its lawsuit in Australia, where neither Everiss lives nor the company was headquartered. It claimed that Everiss’s blog had readers there, but was accused of “libel tourism” in return.
If Evony does not pay an A$80,000 tranche of costs by 12 April, then the case could resume – although Everiss’s team expects that it could win a summary judgement. The costs of Evony’s legal team, including Ric Lucas, the chair of the Australian Law Society’s libel committee, could be double the $114,000 that it has to pay Everiss’s side.
However, Evony is believed to be highly profitable, although its exact financial position is unclear, as its revenues are remitted to Regan Mercantile.
Everiss’s legal team had questioned its decision to bring the case in Australia rather than the UK, where Everiss lives, or the US, where Evony has been registered as a business in the US since 22 July 2009, according to documents filed with the court on Tuesday – though Everiss’s first post about the company was on 10 July that year.
Foreign media count cost of UK libel laws
Britain’s reputation for “libel tourism” is driving American and foreign publishers to consider abandoning the sale of newspaper and magazines in Britain and may lead to them blocking access to websites, MPs have been warned.
Publishers, human rights groups and campaigners have expressed “substantial and increasing concern” because comments that would be protected under the freedom of speech in the US constitution are actionable in London courts once published here, no matter how small the readership.
A memorandum submitted to a Commons select committee, ahead of a meeting with US publishers, states: “Leading US newspapers are actively considering abandoning the supply of the 200-odd copies they make available for sale in London – mainly to Americans who want full details of their local news and sport. They do not make profits out of these minimal and casual sales and they can no longer risk losing millions of dollars in a libel action which they would never face under US law. Does the UK really want to be seen as the only country in Europe – indeed in the world – where important US papers cannot be obtained in print form?”
The submission, on behalf of a number of US media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and MacMillan (US), as well as Human Rights Watch, Global Witness US and Greenpeace International, added: “The consequences of making media organisations liable for putting articles – perfectly lawful by the law of their own domicile – on websites which are occasionally accessed in England should be obvious. The cost of fighting libel actions may lead internet publishers to build ‘fire walls’ against access from the UK, in order to avoid such actions.”