Civil Sin

With 20,000 words left to write for April 26th and having just handed in my dissertation about six hours earlier, I should be either celebrating or furiously scribbling away the last double-spaced, footnoted pages of my degree.  However, like the aspiring journalist I so crave to be defined as, instead I sat down in front of BBC One’s See You In Court.  It’s about ‘high-profile libel cases’, and the trailer had some minor celebrities moaning about how much money it would cost them to ‘get the truth out’.  Yes, that’s right, while Alan Rusbridger, Sir Andrew Motion, Dr. Ben Goldacre and a host of others campaign furiously for libel laws to be reformed in this country to stop the press being too easily denied their right to fundamental freedom of expression, I am witnessing Sheryl Gascoigne moan about Gazza’s (and his mum’s) ‘lies…hurtful lies!’.

Ordinarily, I’d jump to the defense of those who have been wronged by sloppy reporting, but the idea of ‘defamation’ really winds me up.  Okay, Sheryl, so The People, The Mirror and whatever other toilet-roll rag had your face on the front page instead of some actual global issue, but they were only quoting from two regrettably limited perspectives.  Just because they didn’t flash their cash in your face for you to ‘tell your side of the story’ doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t ‘true’.  The report truthfully quoted what Gazza/Gazza’s mum said in an interview.  If they were ill-informed, why don’t you just write to the PCC or get your rightful response.  Hell, pocket some of the red-top’s blood money and do one of their ‘tell-alls’.  But to sue them for defamation, when throughout the programme no-one ever mentions any explicit effects apart from her daughter being caught up in some ‘nasty words at school’ seems a little bit extreme.  She tearfully puts her house on the market to contribute to her ‘fighting fund’, while her lawyer eggs her on!  Am I the only one that thought every single person in this programme stank of self-interest and hypocrisy?

Lembit Opik blames The Sunday Times for him losing the election, his legal adviser/best mate blames the UK legal system for allowing The Sunday Times to have an opinion section, and a completely random ‘local politician’ (who’s clearly not Lembit, because he’s out of a job) starts getting all meta-philosophical about smoke, fires and smokescreens.  The barrister they find to take the case (because his lawyer is apparently all out of ideas) pretty much tells Lembit that you can’t get paid for a spread in Hello! and then expect to remain out of the public eye. Lembit claims he only did the piece in Hello! because The Mirror kept following him (presumably in case he did some impromptu stand-up and we all missed it) and Hello! hasn’t printed anything libellous about him.  Except he’s probably never been featured in Hello! before.  And he probably didn’t see the article before it went to print, so they actually got lucky and managed to escape Lembit’s Super Libel Locator.  (No-one mentions Sheryl Gascoigne’s appearance on I’m A Celebrity. last year.)

I agree with Sam Wollaston’s review in The Guardian, here: ‘the libel lawyers are given a very easy ride’, but by contrast UK libel law is apparently too soft on the press, especially on hard working UK citizens, of which Lembit is only one of 65 million.  I’ll scoot over the bit where he rides to a consultation meeting on a Segway, continues his battle against unemployment by auditioning to be an after-dinner speaker and constructs two skilfully dull anagrams of his name, making a big deal out of the fact he’s Estonian. (Remember that, it’ll be important in a minute).

The reason libel law is so infuriating is because the burden of proof lies on the defendant to prove that their claims are true.  In a sense, you’re guilty until you can prove yourself innocent.  If this fact had been made clear at the top of the programme, we’d all be thinking Sheryl and Lembit are on their merry way to victory.  The reason I suspect Disembodied VoiceOver didn’t make this point was because in Sheryl’s case, the claims might not have been true but they were true to what was said in the interview.  As for Lembit, well it was an opinion piece by Rod Liddle, The Sunday Times’ answer to Littlejohn.   Although you can argue he shouldn’t be given a platform in the first place, the views are his own and clearly identified as such, and therefore his views only conform to the warped sense of truth that resides in his head alongside all his favourite ‘miserable, seaweed munching‘ Welsh people who presumably live in the Lost City of Atlantis, just underneath Barry Island.

A parade of various legal-eagles flicks through so many printouts of publications I forget which case is which, who is actually a lawyer, who’s getting paid and who’s fault it might be.  Each defendant seems to want the press shut down, and I nearly started a game where every time I heard the word ‘true’, I’d burn one of the books on reliability and narrative I’ve been glued to for the past few months.  So, The Sunday Times is at fault because they imply Lembit has an active love life, and infers that he spends more time on his love life than on his career. Apparently, identifiying Lembit as Estonian is as bad as calling him a Jew – oh, hold on, aren’t you implying that ‘Jew’ is a derogatory term, and therefore we can infer that this legal advisor is anti-Semitic?  No, sorry, it’s more deplorable that all the publications are playing for time with their evidence submission deadlines and a few even ask for extensions to really piss off The Little Guy.  The irony here, pointed out by our Sheryl, is that these are people whose publications are totally reliant on working to deadline, yet the judge accepts their difficult time restraints in multi-tasking.  Scathing.

The programme switches from a deep and fascinating debate on press ethics (‘I don’t know why they do it’) to some sort of vindictive retaliation where the only suitable retribution and vindication is cold hard cash.  Sheryl brings home the bacon because The Other Side’s witnesses never turn up, to which her sly double-barrelled barrister mentions that one witness was probably Gazza, and he’s not the most reliable sort – of course he manages to say this without any implication or possible inferral, using some sort of legal witchcraft.

Sheryl gets £30k and an apology mumbled in open court, while being promised a tiny printed retraction on the same page that Gazza’s face once beamed out from.  But it’s okay, because it probably cost the other side £50k, which apparently ‘isn’t much, but it must’ve hurt their pocket somewhere’.  I’ll take your word on that, Sheryl.  You’re the expert.  She cracks open the champagne, her house is taken off the market and it’s another victory for the ordinary ex-wife of one of the nation’s most famous former footballers.  But surely the BBC could’ve contracted Lembit for another few episodes of Have I Got News For You and taken far more pot-shots at News International without trying to make us feel sorry for him losing his seat in Parliament and claiming it was all Rupert Murdoch’s fault.  I half-expected Lembit to say that his phone was bugged, too.  Oh well, there’s always the next episode in the series – we’ve got Uri Geller, Danielle Lloyd and George Galloway to get through, yet.