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.