UK’s libel laws mean this book on Scientology won’t be published here


9:20 am - January 16th 2013

by Robert Sharp    


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Here’s a perfect example of the libel laws preventing literature and public interest debate: Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright’s book Going Clear will not be published in the UK. His British publiser Transworld have said that some of the content was “not robust enough for the UK market.”

This is not a euphemism for saying the book is fabricated. It means that although the author is confident of what he has written, neither he nor his publishers can afford the time or the money to defend the claims against the (famously litigious) Church of Scientology.

I spoke to the Guardian about Transworld’s decision:

“It’s a classic example of the chill that is cast over free speech by these laws, where people choose to self-censor,” says Robert Sharp, head of campaigns and communications at the human rights organisation English PEN. “Something like religion is in the public interest. We should be allowed to scrutinise and criticise it. The cover-up of abuses by the Catholic church is a prime example of what happens when you don’t.”

The House of Lords are debating the Defamation Bill today. The hope is that reforms would firm up definitions of comment, raise the ‘harm’ threshold before a case is brought, and deliver a better ‘public interest’ defence.

Once the Bill is enacted, it should be possible for a book like Going Clear to be published in Britain. One might say that if a book like this is still subjected to this kind of self-censorship, then it cannot be said that the libel laws have been truly ‘reformed’.

Elsewhere, BBC Journalist John Sweeney has written about Scientology. His book, the Church of Fear, was not picked up by the major publishers.

The cult-like practices of the Church of Scientology are outlined in this 1984 High Court custody judgement.

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments


1. Richard Carey

Libel laws should be abolished. They infringe freedom of speech and protect the powerful guilty. We would be much better off without them.

2. Robin Levett

The articles linked seem to suggest that Wright didn’t have enough evidence to prove some of his allegations against individuals (yes, in England & Wales the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the accused) or establish the Reynolds defence, and the publishers left it too late to do anything about it. Libel laws, while not perfect, are a convenient scapegoat in this instance.

It may be that the book canot be published in the UK because the necessary editing would eviscerate it – in which case perhaps the fault lies in the book rather than libel law.

@Richard Carey

“Libel laws should be abolished…”

As important as freedom of speech is, and as bad as libel law is in this country, I think this goes too far. People should have recourse to the courts if someone publishes damaging, false statements (and refuses to retract them equally publicly) about an individual.

4. Richard Carey

@ 3 Andy,

few people seem to agree with me on this point, but I think that the libel laws claim to solve a problem that they largely create. Without the law, you remove the whole “well, if it wasn’t true, he would sue”, and you free people to speak their mind, and Saville is the prime example of how the law prevents victims of crime speaking out. The one thing that is thrown up in opposition to my view is; “but then you could be accused of being a kiddie fiddler with no recourse”. Yes, but this being the case, an allegation, with no factual back-up, would be viewed with regard to the absence of any legal recourse for a false allegation, and if there was no evidence, and thus no police action, I don’t think it would carry much weight.

All the libel laws do is protect rich people and powerful businesses from criticism and exposure of their crimes and failings. Let people speak. The inconveniences of too much freedom are better than those of too little.

Carey has a point, plus lets not forget that libel laws have never seemed to stop the Daily Mail from printing untrue stories about people, particularly when said people earn less than 100K per annum. When he says “All the libel laws do is protect rich people and powerful businesses from criticism and exposure of their crimes and failings.” he’s not wrong.

@5 Cylux
“When he says “All the libel laws do is protect rich people and powerful businesses from criticism and exposure of their crimes and failings.” he’s not wrong.”

The absence of any protection would be better? The law is bad and needs to be improved, not removed. Libertarian ideology only protects the rich.

7. Richard Carey

Thanks Cylux – it must have been hard for you!

@ 6 Cherub,

“Libertarian ideology only protects the rich.”

The truth is quite the opposite. The libel laws only protect the rich and powerful, as many cases indicate. Why do you think none of these allegations against Savile came out while he was alive? Who had the power and the money in that situation?

When people react against abolishing the libel laws, they usually seem to think of a situation where the libel laws don’t ever get used, such as being accused by someone of rape/bestiality and facing a lynch mob. In such a situation, libel laws wouldn’t help you.

As for the general point that “libertarian ideology only protects the rich”, that is also not the case. Libertarians believe in equality in the eyes of the law, and equal liberty for all. It is the coercive power of the state which protects the rich, by granting them privileges – literally private laws – above the rest of us.

8. Chaise Guevara

@ 7 Richard Carey

“The truth is quite the opposite. The libel laws only protect the rich and powerful, as many cases indicate.”

Current libel laws protect the rich and powerful. So would libertarian policy. This is why Cherub is right to say that the law needs to be improved, not abolished.

“When people react against abolishing the libel laws, they usually seem to think of a situation where the libel laws don’t ever get used, such as being accused by someone of rape/bestiality and facing a lynch mob. In such a situation, libel laws wouldn’t help you.”

No, but they’d help prevent the situation arising in the first place by creating disincentives to spread damaging lies.

“As for the general point that “libertarian ideology only protects the rich”, that is also not the case. Libertarians believe in equality in the eyes of the law, and equal liberty for all.”

Yes, and the Ritz is open to rich and poor alike. It’s all very well having a worthy-sounding policy, but real-world consequences are what matter.

9. Richard Carey

@ Chaise,

“the law needs to be improved, not abolished.”

How?

“No, but they’d help prevent the situation arising in the first place by creating disincentives to spread damaging lies.”

I don’t think they do. They help to create a disincentive to tell the truth against powerful people.

“Yes, and the Ritz is open to rich and poor alike.”

That’s right, it is. It’s open to anyone who wants to pay for the experience. I can afford a pot of tea there, I’m sure, and so can you, but most likely we can think of many other things to spend our money on which would give us more satisfaction, so we don’t bother. That said, I don’t begrudge others who want to do so.

What would you rather have? If I suggest the obvious and only alternative, I expect you’ll accuse me of using a straw man.

“It’s all very well having a worthy-sounding policy, but real-world consequences are what matter.”

This is just a throw-away line to defend the status quo.

10. Chaise Guevara

@ 9 Richard Carey

“How?”

Shift burden of proof for a start. Basically it’s too easy to get someone convicted. The test ought to be that the defendant should be able to prove that they had a reasonable belief the claim was true.

Also we need to find a way to stop protracted cases being used as a bullying tactic, although I can’t help on the detail there.

“I don’t think they do. They help to create a disincentive to tell the truth against powerful people.”

I was in the subjunctive there. Talking about good libel laws, not present libel laws.

“That’s right, it is. It’s open to anyone who wants to pay for the experience.”

Now replace “the Ritz” with legal representation, education, basic healthcare. Libertarianism is callous, it lets the rich do what they like while the poor suffer and die.

“What would you rather have? If I suggest the obvious and only alternative, I expect you’ll accuse me of using a straw man.”

Almost certainly, given that you’re under the bizarre impression that there’s only one alternative to libertarianism. Please tell me you don’t think the world is split into you and commies.

“This is just a throw-away line to defend the status quo.”

No it isn’t. Lots of ideas look nice at first glance, but on closer inspection or real-world trial turn out to be crap. Communism, phlogiston, the healing power of prayer. The problem with pretty much every libertarian I’ve met is that they cling to the nice-sounding ideal (freedom of the individual) while ignoring all the costs (starting with the suffering with the poor, ending with the inevitable dictatorship that would arise due to a few biggest-stick-holders competing in a power vacuum).

I at least admit the costs of my preferred systems. Or try to, anyway.

Suggest any alternative to the status quo on any particular issue and the immediate response that people have is to think of the most extreme downside. Unknown outcomes are all in a range of probabilities and I always find it strange why people attribute the least likely as implicitly the most likely. That is why on so many issues there is status quo bias.

So abolish the libel laws. Ah, but the press will immediately start wrongly accusing people of horridly inaccurate things. Anyone who does not think they already do that needs to, er, read a newspaper. Implicitly there is the belief that the libel laws currently constrain the press. Well they do, they constrain what they say about people who can afford to sue them. Everybody else is fair game. Defamation actions are so prohibitively expensive most of the population are already excluded. The courts want to keep it that way because they do not want to deal with a succession of frivolous cases. So making access to the law cheaper is not and has never been something that the courts are interested in. Richard Carey’s point that the libel laws are a rich mans scam is valid.

What can be done about it? They are not going to abolish the libel laws so widening the scope of fair comment is the way to chip away at the privileges of those who use the libel laws to quieten opinion.

12. Richard Carey

@ Chaise,

“Almost certainly, given that you’re under the bizarre impression that there’s only one alternative to libertarianism. ”

No. You’re dodging the question. You complained about the Ritz. If you are objecting to an economic system where rich people go to fancy restaurants that the rest of us either can’t afford or (usually) choose not to visit, because we have other more important uses for our money, then what is the alternative?

You want to have your cake and eat it too, by bitching about inequality but refusing to accept that inequality is unavoidable.

“Now replace “the Ritz” with legal representation, education, basic healthcare.”

Talk about rhetorical sleight of hand.

“Libertarianism is callous, it lets the rich do what they like while the poor suffer and die.”

Emotional demagoguery, with no basis in historical fact or experience.

“pretty much every libertarian I’ve met is that they cling to the nice-sounding ideal (freedom of the individual) while ignoring all the costs”

We don’t ignore the costs, we believe the costs are worth the benefits, and we have a higher opinion of humanity, so we doubt that the worst-case scenarios that statists throw up will not be realised, and we know our history better, and thus know that there were hospitals before the NHS, and welfare before the Welfare State, and schools before the state got involved.

Bastiat dealt with your problem a long time ago:

“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.”

Course the current problems with our libel laws are not exactly dissimilar to the Ritz scenario anyway.

14. Chaise Guevara

@ 12 Richard Carey

“No. You’re dodging the question. You complained about the Ritz.”

Oh, for god’s sake. No I didn’t. I have no objection to the actual Ritz. It’s called a metaphor. Well-known phrase: “the law, like the Ritz, is open to the rich and the poor alike”.

“Talk about rhetorical sleight of hand. ”

Hopefully we’ve cleared that one up, but you still have to face the problems that your preferred system would cause for things like law, education and healthcare.

“Emotional demagoguery, with no basis in historical fact or experience. ”

Ah, the old game where libertarians demand historic examples of libertarian fuck-ups, then proceed to deny that any society has ever been libertarian. What fun.

Let’s start with the Victorians. I await your inevitable claim that life was great in the 1800s, or that we were so totally socialist back then and that was what caused people to starve and freeze in the street.

“We don’t ignore the costs, we believe the costs are worth the benefits”

Because you haven’t actually costed them.

“and we have a higher opinion of humanity, so we doubt that the worst-case scenarios that statists throw up will not be realised”

I bow down before your generous spirit. Surely people won’t act like people as long as we think nice thoughts about them! And the moderate-case scenarios are pretty scary too, to anyone who, regardless of their “opinion of humanity”, views their fellow man with sufficient empathy.

“and we know our history better, and thus know that there were hospitals before the NHS, and welfare before the Welfare State, and schools before the state got involved.”

Better than whom? Because I know all this. I also know that huge numbers of poor kids weren’t educated 150 years ago, and those that were generally got a poor education. Because it wasn’t universal. Because the state didn’t fund it.

“Bastiat dealt with your problem a long time ago”

Oh, grow up. Have I at any point said that you object to education, religion, equality or food? No. So it’s not “my problem” that your source is complaining about. Stop arguing with the imaginary people in your head.

12

‘we have a higher opinion of humanity’

Your recently stated views on gun ownership for self-defence doesn’t really reflect this.

16. Richard Carey

@ Steve b,

“Your recently stated views on gun ownership for self-defence doesn’t really reflect this.”

It absolutely does reflect this, because I trust the average person to own a gun without shooting anyone over a petty argument.

17. Richard Carey

@ Chaise,

you forgot to mention Somalia.

I would respond but I’m off to drown some puppies and smash up some orphans’ toys with a sledgehammer. A libertarian’s work is never done.

16

Now you’re watering it down, you said ‘humanity’ and now it’s the average person (whatever that means).
But as it happens, I share your view about humanity but it’s inequality and the threat to survival which creates division, mistrust and ultimately negative behaviours towards others and, like you, I believe the state acts in the interests of the wealthy elite.
I would be in favour of removing most of the laws generated by the state, including the libel laws.

19. Richard Carey

@ steveb,

I’m happy we agree in some things, but I would say inequality and the threats to survival are the reasons which cause us to work together in this thing called society.

I am not of course claiming that everyone is pure of heart, but it’s rational for us to try to live in peace with one another, there are moral codes which teach us this, and there is such a thing as empathy, which makes some people try to help other people, donate to charities or even set up charities, and other people, like Chaise, to call for the government to step in and run everybody’s lives. What I wish Chaise could understand is the complete contradiction in demanding the state do all these things, on the basis that people wouldn’t bother if the state didn’t intervene, when, demanding that the stat do these things proves that people do care about them.

I recognise that in extreme situations, society breaks down, and individual morality falls apart, but this doesn’t change the fact that generally speaking, people want to live in peace with their neighbours, and would do so even without the state preying upon them, claiming to protect them from each other.

20. Chaise Guevara

@ 17 Richard Carey

“I would respond but I’m off to drown some puppies and smash up some orphans’ toys with a sledgehammer. A libertarian’s work is never done.”

You’ve got nothing to say so you’re sticking to your stupid straw man. Gotcha. Give me a shout if you want to have a grown-up conversation

21. Chaise Guevara

@ 19 Richard

“What I wish Chaise could understand is the complete contradiction in demanding the state do all these things, on the basis that people wouldn’t bother if the state didn’t intervene, when, demanding that the stat do these things proves that people do care about them.”

Oh, this is just too precious. You throw your toys out of the pram and refuse to respond to me, then make me part of some Platonic dialogue when talking to someone else. It’s kind of a shame, actually: when you first turned up on LC you actually seemed quite reasonable, but now you’re acting like a ten-year-old.

While I of course appreciate being patronised, I do in fact understand what you’re saying. What you’re missing, among other things, is that not every voter has the same amount of money. A bunch of poor people can vote for society to pay for schools that they wouldn’t be able to afford themselves.

I assume you’re not going to respond to any of the things I said @14? Don’t worry about it. I understand that you’ve run out of arguments and are hoping that throwing snark at me will let you save face*.

*It won’t, but hey.

22. David Cameroon

1. Richard Carey

Libel laws should be abolished?

I don’t think that a man that has had repeated sexual intercourse with his biological mother and Stafford Bull Terrier, is a serial murderer and paedophile should be offering opinions on this matter.

@22 Oddly Britain’s libel laws didn’t stop you from posting that.


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