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Archive for June 7th, 2009

It must be 40 years since I staggered my way  through my French ‘O’ level oral examination before a bemused examiner.  I cannot, of course, remember what I said… but I seem to recall that I did manage to include the following at some time during these horrific proceedings.  I should have been tried as a war criminal for breaking the Geneva Convention with that examiner.

“Bonjour Monsieur.  Oui… Je suis de l’Ecosse. Ma mère est morte. Mon père est mort, mais mon frère est en vacances. Je ne suis pas mort. J’ai un chien qui mange des légumes.”

The examiner, who was about as French as a blazer wearing Bufton Tufton from Weybridge smiled, as if to suggest that the dog on Britain’s Got Talent last year could have done better and asked me to stop.  I did not see him waving a white flag – but I suspect, had he had one, he would have hit me with it to get  me to stop.

Twenty-seven years later, a successful fugitive from language justice, I found myself at the age of forty at La Coupole, a very amusing restaurant in Paris.  I was with a very attractive woman.  I had decided that I wanted to celebrate a birthday in Paris and have lunch.  We went by Eurostar.  After sinking a bottle of Roederer Crystal, a gift from my friend, I ordered a second.  It was at this point that I decided that I could still speak French.

“Je voudrais…”

“It’s OK Monsieur” said the waiter with a smile “I speak perfect English.”

I had to laugh and told him in Franglais that I had travelled to Paris that day with the specific purpose of murdering the French language and having a good lunch.  Although I did not meet him, humourist Miles Kington (Inventor of Franglais)  attended the very same penal establishment in Scotland where I was educated.  This may explain why those from that excellent school from thirty-five odd years ago  lack the ability to speak foreign languages properly.  We had an excellent day – two more bottles of excellent wine were consumed at which point we decided to go on a rather drunken tour of Paris.  I had to go up the Eiffel Tower, naturally – quite a feat when one is over refreshed.  The journey back on Eurostar involved more wine and shaking hands with some very amusing French people who were astonished by my improving Franglais..

All this is by way of explanation… Today I found myself at PC World.  Don’t ask. I saw a DVD from Berlitz for FRENCH.  I had no plan when I rose this morning to teach myself French.  It is now installed on my laptop.  I have a black beret, a striped T-shirt… les Gauloises, naturellement.. and a glass of Burgundy.  I shall be speaking French before the night is out… and then I shall invade France again…

Demain, nous naviguons vers la France … à plus tard

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If  the News of The World headlines had screamed “Max Mosley goes yachting again – SHOCK!!!” it is unlikely that Mosley would have taken them to court for infringing his privacy.  He did so because they revealed his perfectly lawful private amusement of strutting around shouting in faux German and being whipped by scantily clad beauties.  This of course interests the public but, in my view, is a matter for him and it is not in the public interest that he should have to submit to such revelation by the press.

Unfortunately, as The Sunday Times reports today, his court action enabled “Mr Justice Eady, a High Court judge, (to deliver)  a series of rulings that have bolstered privacy laws and encouraged libel tourism.”

For my part, I think it is perfectly reasonable, when one’s private life does not impact on one’s ability to do one’s job or cause harm to others, that it should remain private and not be subject to Press intrusion  – after all, Mosley is not a Cabinet Minister, a judge, a teacher or performing any job where behaviour of this type might throw into doubt his ability to perform.  However, where behaviour breaks the law it is perfectly reasonable for a newspaper to argue that it is in the public interest for such behaviour to be revealed.

We do appear to be slowly developing a rather insidious privacy law that will allow celebrities and others to manipulate litigation to suit their needs and enable them to enjoy greater protection than ordinary people who cannot afford to fight newspapers.

Libel is a quite different animal and there is increasing cause for concern that Britain is becoming the Libel litigation capital of the world.  This, in my view, is not good news for the rule of law generally nor, specifically, for freedom of speech.

Not everyone reads The Sunday Times but the article in The  Sunday Times by Robert watts   ” UK faces backlash over ‘libel tourists” is worth a read and has prompted me to cover the key points in it and make a few observations.

Key point summary from the article

1. American politicians are pushing through free speech laws to protect US citizens from libel rulings in British courts that have been accused of stifling criticism of oligarchs and dictators.

2. Libel tourists find the libel regime in London particularly claimant friendly. Ukrainian businessman sued a Ukrainian language website based in his homeland for £50,000, simply because its contents could be viewed in Britain.

3.  Now lawmakers in several American states, including New York and Illinois, have moved to block the enforcement of British libel judgments in the United States. Congress is also considering a bill that will allow defendants of foreign libel suits to counter-sue for up to three times the damages sought by a claimant if their right to free speech, enshrined in the First Amendment, has been violated.

4.  Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Greenpeace, Global Witness, Index on Censorship and representatives of Oxfam and Christian Aid are all known to be alarmed by the way UK courts are being used to challenge their reports. “Our libel laws have made Britain a place where any of the world’s bullies and wealthy celebrities can wander into court 13   and launder their reputations,” said Mark Stephens, a partner at the law firm Finers Stephens Innocent, which advises many non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The article makes the point that defendants are ‘guilty’ until they prove their innocence, there is no legal aid, damages are often higher than in other jurisdictions and the government  allows ‘libel and privacy claimants to sue under “no win, no fee” arrangements. This enables lawyers to claim a 100% “uplift” on their normal rates. One of London’s leading libel lawyers charges up to a total of £1,200 an hour.’

***

The reality seems to be that many claimants are not at all interested in the damages – and this applies to privacy cases as well.  Being the cynic I am – I will correct that last remark.  The claimants are interested in the damages, but not to line their own pockets so much… but to act as a poison pill or shark repellent and deter people from publishing. The very high cost of privacy and libel  litigation is also a major factor.

Lawyers are in business to make money – and, I am told, libel lawyers do rather well out of it.  It is not a particularly complex area of law – no more so than a complex criminal fraud, commercial transaction or tax matter (I am told) – but the fees being charged are, some say, rather higher.  It is, if this is the case, a perfect illustration of market economics – and the adage ‘is the punter desperate enough to pay?’

What claimants really want is for the story or report to be suppressed or, putting it more bluntly, to frighten people into not reporting or writing about the claimant’s activities.

Given that we live in the 21st Century, that we value democracy, that we say we value openness and transparency, that we value freedom of information and freedom of speech – surely the privilege of celebrity, the privilege of being able to engage in business in a free country should permit transparency where likely wrongdoing is involved, where the rules are being broken or bent.  Ironically, we have just gorged ourselves on four weeks of stories on MP expenses and wrong doing by peers – simply because the MPs were not able to suppress the information we are entitled to – despite their disgraceful and hamfisted attempts to do so.
Corporate and commercial secrets must be given privacy protection. Celebrities, as with the rest of us, are entitled to privacy – but if they or companies or organisations tread outside the law it is perfectly reasonable, and in the public interest, that this wrongdoing should be revealed by the press and other media.  We should ensure that our libel and privacy laws do not err too far against genuine public interest issues.


As for being a supermarket for foreign users – this is ludicrous.
Why should our laws be shaped by the needs of those who have no interest in our nation, but simply use our courts because their winnings are likely to be higher?  Why should we give protection to those from overseas who can frighten those in their own countries into submission by bringing a claim against someone in their own country in our courts- simply because the internet enables readers in this country to view what is happening elsewhere.?

Lord Phillips has talked about the rule of law at a forum in Qatar recently.  This rather shoddy business of our libel laws being perverted and developing along lines to suppress freedom of speech and reporting in the genuine public interest is a worthy cause for close inspection by judiciary and parliament alike.

As ever… over to you. The comments box is yours.


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