‘Now we are engaged in another great struggle – this time against Islamist terror – and again the enemies of freedom seek to silence free speech. Our legislation will help ensure that they do not succeed.’
– Senators Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman
Senator Joe Lieberman has a record of censorious behaviour. As a vice-presidential candidate, and populist rightwing counterweight to Al Gore, he was seen as the force behind calls to censor Hollywood and more recently has led initiatives to ‘shut down constitutionally protected speech’.
So his apparent conversion to the cause – ‘ the enemies of freedom seek to silence free speech’ – will stick in some people’s craw.
Lieberman’s portrayal of England’s defamation laws as protectors of Islamic terror is a little hysterical, but does show how extreme our own laws currently appear. The current law is a rich man’s censor in desperate need of reform (this blog is hosted in the USA after my ISP was threatened by a litigious local property developer, whose proposed legal action had no hope of success). Lieberman’s law would allow American authors, successfully sued for libel in England, to countersue and, if they could show that the English legal action was part of a campaign to suppress free speech, claim damages of three times the English judgement.
And yet there are time when individuals must be protected from an occasionally irresponsible media and there’s no better example of this than the case of Robert Murat, who appears to have won £550,000 from eleven newspapers. Here £50,000 per publication seems paltry, given that when similar claims were made against Kate and Gerry McCann, they received £550,000 from the Express newspaper group alone, together with front page apologies in the Daily Express and Daily Star. The circulation boost a story like that connected to Robert Murat can give means a £50,000 payout is no deterrent.
In itself, Lieberman’s initiative looks like something that could easily backfire, but with luck it will spur on long overdue reforms here in England or, better yet, an international convention on defamation fit for an age of globalised publication.