Sunday, June 27, 2010

Why?, because the smell of money is very strong

"Libel law: I said sorry, so why the lawyers?"

People resort to the courts too quickly, making libel law a real danger to free speech


Victoria Coren

June 27th, 2010

The death of Michael Jackson was the only piece of news I heard in the whole of June last year. I was at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, which is always an information vacuum. The cards dictate our thinking day and night. If someone called from home to say the Queen had been assassinated, the conversation in Vegas would go: "Did you hear about the Queen? She did a big thing... I've forgotten what. Anyway, so I was in this cash game, I'm sitting with the AQ of hearts, I make it $200 to play…"

Last year, I was at the poker table when my mobile bleeped with a mysterious text message. It said: "DEAD MAN MOONWALKING."

I looked at it for a bit. I thought about the old friend who had sent the text.

"I think," I said to my poker colleagues, "that Michael Jackson might have died."

Later, I switched on the TV in my hotel room. I have never been more conscious of the difference between American and British culture than I was in the moment that the newsreader, having discussed the possibility of a drug-induced heart attack, turned to a professional cardiologist and asked for his opinion. The cardiologist said: "Michael Jackson was a legend" and burst into tears.

One year later, the anniversary is marked by the collapse of a libel case that Jacko's old bodyguard was bringing against Channel 4. Although the bodyguard has dropped his claims of documentary fakery, the channel is stuck with a £1.7m bill for lawyers who prepared their defence. The bodyguard's own lawyers were acting on a "no win, no fee" basis.

Julian Bellamy, head of Channel 4, says: "This case illustrates the chilling effect that… libel claims can have on broadcasters' freedom of expression."

I am sympathetic to Mr Bellamy, after my terrible experience with the tattoo.

Last year, I published a book about my life in the gambling bubble. For Richer, For Poorer is an autobiography going back 20 years.

One story involves a curious adventure in Cardiff, 11 years ago, where Stephen Fry confused me with another blonde who was in town at the time. I was embarrassed, I wrote, because Stephen Fry went back to London believing that I have a tattoo of Ben Elton's face across my stomach.

Soon after publication, I got a call from the presenter of a poker podcast. The other girl was coming on the show, he said, to reveal that her tattoo is not of Ben Elton's face. It is a small heart, with Ben Elton's name written across it. He asked if I would do a phone interview and I said of course.

It was a lighthearted chat, where we discussed the nature of memory. Nobody makes precise notes as they go through life, except the most forward-thinking of politicians. The rest of us write as we remember, squinting back through the time-fog.

What I remembered was the embarrassment of people thinking that Ben Elton was such an idol of mine I had a tattoo of him. That still stood, face or name, but I apologised on the show for getting it wrong, made a note to change the words in the paperback edition and forgot about it.

A few days later, my publishers received a two-page letter from a famous firm of libel lawyers. Among other distressing things, it said that my apology on the podcast had been sarcastic. I found this absolutely infuriating. My book is a love letter to the colourful poker world and everyone in it; I was, and am, sincerely sorry to upset anyone. Especially this girl, whom I had known and liked for years.

But why didn't she just ring me and say she was upset, to get a full apology and a change to the paperback? Something has gone wrong in the world if a normal person feels that the natural path is to go immediately to lawyers.

There was a long exchange and the case never went to court. There was no libel verdict or big damages payout. But the publishers and I still had to pay our lawyer. No slur on him (he's a professional, not a charity worker) but these costs hurt, for an independent publishing house in a recession. Had it gone to court, they could have been crippling.

What does this mean for people who want to write autobiographies – or even just tell old stories at parties? We are humans, not computers. Our memories are a mulch of impressions, not a dossier of photographic evidence. One mustn't tell lies that damage others, of course. But we must be free to let a few details get lost in the sand, because there is no other way to talk about the past. And if one can be financially threatened for saying the right words in the wrong tone (for example, an apology that a lawyer interprets as "sarcastic") then there is no way to talk about anything.

More broadly, the increasing ease of suing for libel is without doubt a curb on the freedom of speech. The "no win, no fee" principle protects the poor from being lied about, just like the rich. But it also allows a litigant to run up many hours of letters and phone calls, which must be matched on the other side, and can leave the target with huge bills even if they don't lose a case. Even if it never goes to court.

The Tories claim they will reform libel laws. What is the way forward? Do we continue to allow an encroachment on our freedom to speak and write? Or do we risk removing protection from those who have a right not to be libelled?

Don't ask me. I can't even remember a tattoo properly. I'm going to Vegas; let me know if anything happens while I'm gone.

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