Thursday, January 27, 2011

MURDOCH too thick skinned to sue for libel,,,,

UK libel rules: Change the goddam law

Rupert Murdoch's biographer on the hefty legal challenges he faced when his book encountered British lawyers
One of the most confounding experiences a British visitor might have in the US is getting seriously sick without health insurance.

I believe a comparable experience – a mauling, a looking glass inversion of reality, a collapse of civilised norms – for an American in Britain is a libel reading.

Everybody in the UK seems to recognize the tangled condition of British libel laws – and there seems to be real interest in fixing them.

 Indeed, the libel tourist – that cranky, deep-pocketed, opportunistic and thin-skinned individual who makes use of British libel laws to achieve satisfaction he would not have achieved in his own country – has become nearly a cultural fixture in Britain. But I'm not sure anyone has quite spelled out the sheer obnoxiousness and absurdity and mutilations of language endured by authors and, ultimately, by readers.

The British libel report into my own latest book, The Man Who Owns the News, which had already been edited and trawled over by lawyers in the US, is a massive document. Formal, dramatic, threatening in its implications.

I have never successfully wheedled out of a UK publisher the exact price they pay for a libel reading, but it is certainly a wonderful payday.

These external libel lawyers, without apparent access to a newspaper or to Google, flagged a passing reference in my last book to Michael Milken, the poster boy for 1980s Wall Street skulduggery and insider trading: "Please check there is evidence to prove, or he does not deny, that he was convicted of fraudulent practice." (This is not that dissimilar from having to check if the Twin Towers did, in fact, fall.)

"A statement is defamatory," explains the report in a long preamble about the nature of libel law in Britain, "and thus potentially libellous if it tends to lower someone in the eyes of right-thinking members of society generally.

Individuals can sue.

Most kinds of corporate bodies can sue.

Foreign nationals can sue here even if they live abroad, so long as the defamation has been published here and they have a reputation in this jurisdiction. No action can be brought on behalf of a dead person, although defamatory allegations about the dead … may defame the living."

I am in a particularly vulnerable and testy position in terms of British libel law because I often write about wealthy men with outsized egos who are the prime beneficiaries of British libel laws. Indeed, one of the effects of the libel laws in Britain is that the law, or interpretations of the law, have rather coalesced around the behaviour of the men who use the law.

London has arguably become one of the leading redoubts of the world's most obnoxious and unscrupulous because they are most protected here from anyone pointing out that they are obnoxious and unscrupulous.

In some sense then, British lawyers, who in my view are among the least socially astute and media-savvy people on earth (they all seem to be hidden-under-a-rock types – a characterisation for which they might sue me for libel), become in effect PR people – of an especially dithering and nervous sort – for the people the journalist is writing about.

 Regarding all people as inevitable litigants, their job becomes to whitewash, sanitise, and spin the least critical thing that might be said about them.

Still, I believed that, for my last book, I had an ironclad protection from being sued.

 My subject was Rupert Murdoch, who, in fact, as the proprietor of the Sun, the News of the World, the Times and the Sunday Times, has been sued more times for libel than anybody else in the UK.

He is a defendant, not a plaintiff.

Indeed, knowing as much about Murdoch and his business as anybody who doesn't work for him or is not related to him, I told the lawyers, Murdoch, simply, doesn't sue for libel.

This is partly because the man has an admirably thick skin (as well as a basic disregard for what anybody says about him), partly because so many people are saying such terrible things about him at such a fantastic rate that it would occupy all his time to sue, and partly because as a libel defendant he would not want to strengthen the arguments of libel plaintiffs by making them himself.

So safe? Yes?

Quite the opposite.

 The more powerful you are in the UK, the richer you are, the more media savvy you are, the more you are to be feared in a libel court of law – even if you won't sue.

 Every rich and powerful guy is a beneficiary of the other rich and powerful guys who have sued. "I know you might think that this is over-cautious, but gangsters have fought and won libel cases in the UK before now," I am told, as an explanation for why I should show special courtesy to Eastern European criminals as a class. Or in another admonition: "Some amazing scoundrels have lived prosperous and much-feted lives in the gap between what is true and what can be proved in a British court."

But, Rupert, he doesn't sue, ever.

"But he might." "But he won't."

But … and here it came: "Just because he won't sue, doesn't mean he shouldn't have the protection of people who would."

In essence, UK publishers and their lawyers, by anticipating what the rich and powerful will do – and invariably imagining the worst (certainly because, on the part of the lawyers, it is the most profitable and safest route) – do the work of the rich and powerful.

Curiously, the fear is not so much about saying something that people don't know – about revealing terrible secrets.

 For the most part the worry comes about how you say what people already know. It's about the adjectives you use. It is about not offending anyone.

When I characterised a group of people who had inherited shares in a company, but had assumed no responsibility and taken no interest in it, as "business know-nothings," this was changed to "all but innocent in the ways of big business".

I described a consummate deal maker, famous for his feints and his crafty and arguably underhand strategies, as "tricking people". Could we make it, said the British lawyers, "outmanoeuvred?"

There are, in my last libel report, exactly 408 recommendations, admonishments, and causes for grave concern.

On every page of my book there was a skirmish, a confrontation, or a knock-down drag-out with the lawyers.

Now, I am more belligerent, nasty and argumentative than any lawyer and, in at least half of these assaults on language, I successfully used language – dripping scorn works – to beat them back. Still, many authors might not be so perpetually loaded for bear as me – and they'll have likely lost some of their choicest words.

Life is too short for this. Language is too important. Crooks ought to be called crooks. Buffoons out to be called buffoons.

Change the goddamn law. And fire the lawyers.

• This article was amended on 7 September 2010. The original said that Rupert Murdoch was famous for his "faints". This has been corrected.