How I sued the Daily Mail – and won

The paper labelled me a ringleader in violent disorder at the Millbank protests.

Mentioning the words "libel law" inevitably conjures up images of celebrity indiscretion, businessmen with vendettas against the free press, large awards for damages and lawyers on bloated salaries.

As a socialist and anti-cuts protester, I don’t fit into any of these stereotypes. But last week, I successfully sued the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail for their coverage of the Millbank protest on 10 November 2010 and was awarded £60,000 in damages after a five-day jury trial at the High Court.

Back in 2010, after I made the mistake of talking to a Standard journalist outside Millbank, the papers labelled me a chief conspirator in fomenting violent disorder on that fateful day. The defamation was made effective by the combination of truth and falsity, because it is no secret that I’m an outspoken socialist and supporter of civil disobedience. Once you add to this a misquotation, a biased assessment of Millbank as simply a frenzied riot, ignore the parts of the interview that don’t fit the picture you want to create, and throw in for good measure a bit of two-plus-two-equals-five conspiracy, then you have all the makings of a sensational tabloid splash, never mind the accuracy.

The Standard and the Mail knew that they had no evidence for these charges beyond the journalists’ particular "take" on the interview (it was not recorded). During the trial their principal tactic was to resort to the kinds of "reds under the bed" conspiracies that so badly undermined the democratic credibility of the west during the Cold War. This "good versus evil" ideology feeds in nicely to the black and white crudity of Britain’s tabloid media and they very much fought their defence along the lines of the original articles in the two papers. In court, student protestors were depicted as an angry mob used as "cannon fodder’"by "Trotskyite politicians" that "bear the moral responsibility" for their actions. The latter’s "exposure" was a "public service to the whole of society"; to identify, "even provide photographs", the socialists "standing in the shadows" inspiring disorder.

Both the original Standard and Mail coverage of Millbank and their defence in court last week, attempted to de-legitimise political views that stood outside of the austerity consensus in Britain. If political opponents are depicted as criminals and extremists then they are pushed outside of the parameters these papers lay down for ‘legitimate’ debate and argument. At times in the court room, their legal advocate suggested that merely to support strikes, direct action, and occupations, was to support violent and criminal actions, for these are an apparently foreseeable consequence of resistance, so it is ‘to be inferred that they are an intended consequence of such actions’. This said more about the attitude of the tabloid press, which appears to see all resistance to austerity and capitalism as mere criminality, than it did about the progressive intentions of campaigners.

That they believed this red-baiting could be effective tells us a lot about the cultural attitudes of Britain’s elite classes to the ordinary people that make a jury system possible. The newspapers’ defence barrister appealed to the jury with patronising statements about the morality of ‘ordinary everyday folk’ and contrasted this to my own supposed ‘blind spot on the moral understanding that ordinary people have about what is right and what is wrong’. There were echoes of the self-serving justifications used by tabloid editors in the Leveson inquiry, when we were told the newspapers ‘know and understand their readers’ and so their judgement reflected a commonly held conviction.

But the great democratic power of the jury system does not lie in the illusory idea that ordinary people somehow share a moral code with the millionaire owners of the tabloid media. It is predicated on the intelligence of working people; to bring a variety of talents, insights and experiences into the court room so as to reach a fair judgement on our fellow citizens.

Should, however, forthcoming legislation be passed, this may well have been the last libel action that is tried by a jury, even though few cases could better underline the importance of the right to one. It was a claim against corporate interest groups that cut to the heart of whether protest groups and activists that aren’t powerful, indeed are subject to vilifications by private media barons, have the same kind of democratic right to accurate reporting in the media as the rich and famous do.

Indeed, this case cut to the heart of what we mean about freedom of speech and the free press. Our press is dominated by a handful of powerful individuals and media groups. We can’t therefore talk about a free press as a freedom of equals, but as the freedom of a handful of powerful interest groups. While the internet is democratising access to information, the old media hierarchies are still powerful gatekeepers of it even in the digital age. Just think about how this affects the freedom of speech of those who don’t own huge media empires. If the ideas of campaigners who challenge the interests of the rich and powerful are slandered as incitement to criminal activity, then the tabloid media is using its power illegitimately to intimidate us into silence and encourage public scorn.

Taking a libel action is just one avenue we have to assert the legitimacy of our ideas and, if we are tried by a jury, to subject the media’s reporting to the judgement of ordinary working people. But it’s not only the right to a trial by jury in libel cases that is threatening our access to justice. There are also plans afoot to abolish Conditional Fee Agreements (CFAs, more popularly known as “no win, no fee”) for libel cases that really will make them the preserve of oligarchs and celebrities. The same media companies that slander protestors have lobbied hard against the high costs of libel cases and targeted CFAs for criticism, and should their proposals be passed legal actions like my own will be a thing of the past. For there is simply no way I could have privately funded the costs of this action.

After my case, the Evening Standard has even had the cheek to email staff to warn of cuts due to the high legal costs imposed on them by the court (which instructed them to pay provisional costs of £450,000 to my legal team within 28 days). CFAs are by no means perfect. I, for one, support the expansion of public funding through the legal aid system as an alternative to them. But the high costs of trial, specifically covering insurance premiums and lawyers’ ‘success fees’ which are a return on the losses that they risk when they take action on behalf of clients, are intended to encourage early settlement. In my case, over a year ago when costs were low, both newspapers had the opportunity to settle the case for just £5,000 but they refused, dug in and pushed the proceedings all the way to trial. How symbolic it is of the injustices that protestors were challenging at Millbank that Standard owner Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, who is the 358th richest person in the world with a personal fortune of $3.1 billion, is now using my case as an excuse for making cutbacks.

Ultimately, most libel cases do settle long before trial. But the Standard and the Mail were never prepared to do this, presumably on political grounds. They couldn’t bring themselves to strike an out of court settlement with a socialist campaigner who supports direct action. Listening to their attempts at character assassination last week, I was struck by how these papers not only actually believe their own propaganda about the world we live in, but they believe no less trenchantly that ‘ordinary everyday folk’, as they so condescendingly put it, share these ideals. If there is one thing we can all take satisfaction from, it is that last week’s events eroded this most arrogant of mindsets.

The Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, pictured arriving at the Leveson inquiry earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images

Luke Cooper is a postgraduate student and associate tutor in International Relations at the University of Sussex.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.