Yes, I know I’m late on this one.
Uzbek tycoon Alisher Usmanov, who may or may not be a wobber, a wapist and a pickpocket, is looking to buy Arsenal Football Club. Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, doesn’t think Mr Usmanov is a fit and proper man to do such a thing, and published an article to that effect (Indymedia mirror) on his website.
Mr Usmanov, following in the proud tradition of fine characters such as James Goldsmith, Jeffrey Archer, Robert Maxwell and Sonia Sutcliffe, immediately hired expensive libel lawyers to threaten Mr Murray with Dire Consequences unless he expunged the article forthwith. Mr Murray’s response was that the article was true, and that he’d happily see Mr Usmanov in court (this is also known as an ‘Arkell versus Pressdram‘ moment).
If the British libel laws weren’t appallingly stupid, that would have been the end of the matter. Unfortunately, they are, and anyone who distributes a libel, knowingly or unknowingly and on a ridiculously wide definition of ‘distributes’ (legally, a paperboy delivering a newspaper with a libel on p24 would count…) is also liable to be sued. So Mr Usmanov’s lawyers also threatened the hosting company for Mr Murray’s site with a libel writ, and cravenly-but-understandably they backed down and pulled the plug.
[understandably because it’s not their fight; it’s not reasonable to expect the directors of a small web hosting firm to potentially lose their livelihood because the law is an ass, even if fighting for truth would be the morally courageous thing for them to do]
The good news is that, via a massive blog campaign, Mr Murray’s article has now achieved a far larger readership than it would ever otherwise have done, that Mr Usmanov’s past is now on the agenda for mainstream news organisations – and more generally, that the existence of the Internet has reduced the extent to which corrupt and powerful men can cheat and bully critics into silence. And who knows – maybe their demonstrable futility will actually lead to the reform of the UK’s libel laws to become more sane.
Personally, I don’t believe there should be libel laws at all: if people want to tell lies about me, that should be their prerogative, just as it should be mine to tell the world that the people lying about me are a shower of despicable cunts.
When I’ve raised this to people, they’ve tended to suggest that their abolition would harm innocent people wronged by the evil press. I’m sceptical that’s the case, though: I can’t think of a single libel case ever that wasn’t either over something so trivial that it’s frankly an insult to drag it into the courts (“Ugly single middle-aged rich man pays for sex! Bottle-blond pop star is gay!”), or brought by someone so despicable that – even if the story were false – the most appropriate resolution to the case would still have been to sandpaper the litigant to death.
If anyone knows of a libel case where a genuinely malicious press organ was held to account for publishing a seriously damaging and false story about someone who wasn’t a vile cunt, please post details in the comments – you might even change my mind…