Monday, 3 May 2010

Libel and Tennis: the Trophies of Robert Dee

I would like to introduce you to Robert Dee.

Please do take a moment to visit his website.

Mr Dee is a professional tennis player and, as such, one would expect his website to list his trophies.

But the trophies on Mr Dee's website are not from international tennis tournaments.

Instead, they are the apologies of newspapers in response to threatened libel claims.

In case this list disappears, I set it out below in full:

The BBC Apology
The BBC Damages
The Daily Mail Apology
The Sun Apology
Reuters Apology
Daily Star Apology
The Mirror Apology
The Independent Apology
Daily Express Apology
Washington Post Apology
Evening Standard Apology
Int Herald Tribune Apology
Fox Sports Apology
The Guardian Apology
Birmingham Mail Apology
Northern Echo Apology
NBC Sport Apology
Yahoo Sport Apology
Mail on Sunday Apology
AOL Sports Apology
The Scotsman Apology
ABC Apology
The Boston Globe Apology
ESPN Tennis Apology
STV Scotland Apology
Daily Record Apology
Yahoo Canada Apology
CCS Sport Group Apology
Yahoo Asia Apology
Comcast.Net Apology
DichMay Vietnam Apology
IFSC Online Dublin Apology
The Post Chronicle Apology
News Daily Apology Apology

You must agree that they are a quite incredible collection.

But how was this haul achieved?

One can even imagine George Galloway and Uri Geller looking in awe at this fine young challenger for their defamation crowns.

These trophies of Mr Dee are, it would seem, due to him not being quite as bad a tennis player as the newspapers suggested that he was.

Usually the newspapers alleged (wrongly) that he was the worst professional tennis player.

(Of course, with a finite number of professional tennis players, someone must be the worst.)

Mr Dee took exception to these allegations and (presumably) backed with the threat of legal action, the newspapers offered an apology.

And Mr Dee actually did nothing wrong in seeking such redress because the state of English libel law meant he could do so.

Nor do I really blame the newspapers for giving these apologies.

Such a trivial issue is hardly worth using their scarce resources in fighting a libel battle.

So look again at that list of apologies: these trophies of Mr Dee.

This list is an index of just how bad English libel law has become.

And between this list of trophies at one extreme and the public health cases of Simon Singh, Peter Wilmshurst and Ben Goldacre at the other, there is the great mass of threatened and actual libel cases which distort on a daily basis the information to which the public have access.

Eventually Mr Dee went after one trophy too far.

The Daily Telegraph stood firm.

In a rather wonderful judgment, Mrs Justice Sharp had to determine whether the following statement was defamatory:

"A BRITON ranked as the worst professional tennis player in the world after 54 defeats in a row has won his first match.Robert Dee, 21, of Bexley, Kent, did not win a single match during his first three years on the circuit, touring at an estimated cost of £200,000.But his dismal run ended at the Reus tournament near Barcelona as he beat an unranked 17-year-old, Arzhang Derakshani, 6-4, 6-3. Dee, below, lost in the second round."

Do read the judgment in full. It is an exhilarating document.

Sadly, she had to conclude that such a statement was defamatory: that it could be the basis of a libel suit.

Such is the disgracefully low hurdle set by "defamatory meaning" in English libel law.

(English libel law has still not recovered from its dismal and discrediting low point of Berkoff v Burchill, where it was held that calling an actor "hideously ugly" was capable of being defamatory and so a libel suit could be maintained. Have a look at the Berkoff judgment to see how appalling the majority are and how sensible Millet LJ was in the minority.)

But having conceded that the passage was defamatory, Mrs Justice Sharp moved quickly to show that the meaning could be justified.

Mr Dee had indeed lost all those circuit matches: the other matches he had won were not those which were on the international circuit.

So Mr Dee lost his first properly competitive case in the great libel tournament.

Perhaps Messrs Galloway and Geller can rest easy.

And all credit to the Telegraph group for taking this on. No one would have cared had they just been another notch on Mr Dee's website.

For me, Mr Dee's case shows the ridiculous ease with which a libel case can be threatened.

What constitutes a defamatory statement is just so low, and a libel action can be brought without any proof of damage.

So, please do admire Mr Dee's list of trophies.

They tell us a great deal about the current substance and practice of English libel litigation.

And have a think about who, in far less trivial circumstances, will have taken advantage of the awful state of English libel law to limit what you can read and hear.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


Alice said...

I really hate to say this, but it appears that the individual and indeed the newspaper is just no match for libel laws :(

Grania said...

I'm actually quite gobsmacked that someone would be so smug about his career of threatening libel suits as to blatantly trumpet it on his homepage.

It does rather serve as a monument to how libel law is abused in the UK.

Chris Kavanagh said...

Thanks for hunting this out, your article is currently no 3 on a google search for 'Robert Dee' and hopefully will ascend to no 1 before too long.

Good on the Telegraph for standing up against intimidation and I'm as shocked as everyone else that someone would boast so blatently about a career of libel threats!

Steve Jones said...

One wonders if there is an official "worst libel plaintiff" ranking. Go for it is what I say.

I'd also love to have heard what legal advice Robert Dee received in pursuing this case. Unfortunately, we will almost certainly never know.

Anyway, I'm aure there are lots of fair comment descriptions of this chap which could be made.

ivan said...

I suspect the lawyers advised him that they would almost certainly apologise. Good advice it was too, only wrong once out of more than 20 times.

I'm rather surprised about the Berkoff case. I'm in particular surprised that there was no reference to beauty being in the eye of the beholder, ie, a matter of opinion. Surely when Ms B says Mr B is ugly that ought to be incapable of being interpreted as a statement of fact that he is ugly, because whether someone is ugly or otherwise is purely subjective and must therefore be a matter of opinion. And aren't we allowed to communicate our opinion on such matters? Seems I am wrong.

Steve Jones said...

I can imagine the original advice was that the Telegraph would probably apologise, but was it wise to continue with the case? Or had it reached such a point in the legal process that the point of no return was reached? I assume the apologies from other media organisations were received from threats rather than actually going to court.

I suppose if I was cynical I might think that in a (purely hypothetical) case where there was a no win/no fee case taken up by a firm of lawyers, that the potential financial impact on the firm might play some part.

Anyway, it would have been interesting to know what the appropriate definition of "worst" was in this context. I'm beginning to wonder if the use of a potentially pejorative superlative is treading on dangerous ground. I'm beginning to wonder just where fair comment is an allowed defense. After all, we have a slightly odd-ball Labour parliamentary candidate declaring that his own leader is the country's worst prime minister. One assumes that Gordon Brown's lawyers won't be serving papers on this individual.

Mike from Ottawa said...

That was a cracking decision, but disturbing that such an obviously merit-free case could get so far and occasion such bother for so trivial a dispute.

However one might view Mr Dee's tennis results, the article he complained of didn't show him in a poorer light than that which he shone on himself by resorting to litigation to rescue his tennis reputation and by making a list of apologies for slightly inaccurate articles the most prominent feature on his web page.

twaza (@wassabeee on twitter) said...

Mr Dee must be congratulated for reading more newspapers than anyone else.