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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle