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Thursday, 7 October 2010

BREAKING - Migration Watch drop libel threat against Sally Bercow

According to Iain Dale, who is hilariously trying to spin it as a "No Score Draw", Migration Watch (and presumably Sir Andrew Green) have dropped their illiberal and misconceived threatened claim against my client Sally Bercow.

For background and links to the correspondence, see here.

Their face-saving form of words is as follows:

In a discussion programme on Sky News on 18 August, Mrs Bercow associated Migrationwatch with Mosley and Hitler. When we heard about this, we asked for a copy of the program and obtained a transcript of precisely what she had said. After taking advice from counsel we asked our solicitors to write to her seeking an apology and an undertaking not to repeat such an allegation. In their response, solicitors for Mrs Bercow said that she "did not intend to (and did not) allege that Migrationwatch is a fascist or racist organisation", that she was expressing an honest opinion about the handling of a Migrationwatch report by the Daily Express and that she had a right to do so in a democratic society.

Migrationwatch are strongly in favour of free speech. We accept her assurances about her intentions, and consider that important and sensitive issues such as immigration should be debated without descending into derogatory language and associations.

In view of the assurance contained in her solicitor’s letter, we do not intend to take the matter further.




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14 comments:

Steve Jones said...

They were idiots to raise what would have been an unwinnable case anyway. I suppose somebody weak-minded might have fallen for it, but really; anybody who (reputedly) called George Osborne "mental" was never like to shrink from a fight.

So well done, but I rather suspect you've had more difficult cases.

As for the score draw? More an own goal I would say.

Trinoc said...

"No score draw" my arse! I hope you'll be claiming plenty of costs from them for your troubles.

Bob O'H said...

In a discussion programme on Sky News on 18 August, Mrs Bercow associated Migrationwatch with Mosley and Hitler.
Hang on, I thought part of her case was that she hadn't - she was commenting on the newspaper article.

Should Mrs. Bercow sue? :-)

Neuroskeptic said...

Hilarious.

How is this a draw?

"We asked our solicitors to write to her seeking an apology and an undertaking not to repeat such an allegation. In their response, solicitors for Mrs Bercow [complied with neither request]. Migrationwatch are strongly in favour of free speech [so in light of the fact that Bercow rebuffed our legal action] we accept her assurances about her intentions, and consider that important and sensitive issues such as immigration should be debated without descending into derogatory language and associations.

In view of the assurance [not the one we asked for] contained in her solicitor’s letter, we do not intend to take the matter further."

Steve Jones said...

@Bob O'H

"Should Mrs. Bercow sue?"

Perhaps David Allen Green might correct me, but I'm pretty certain that you cannot sue somebody for libel in what is a private communication. A soliciter's letter of this sort is most certainly a private communication and not a publication.

The reason it was published is because Sally Bercow and her legal team decided to make it public. From what I can gather, if I send a letter to somebody accusing them of being a thief and they decide to make the accusation public, then it's not covered by libel.

Of course if this case had ever come to court, then the nature of the original claim would have come to light, but then we are under a totally different set of rules. Firtly the claimant would be liable to costs incured by the defendent, and I believe it is the case that those who bring baseless cases can, themselves, find themselves at the wrong end of the civil, or even criminal law.

That's not to say that all private communications are outside the scope of the law. Threats, blackmail and all sorts of other things could be dealt with, but not, I believe, libel which, by definition, is about defamation of character and therefore has to involve third parties.

Phil J said...

How is this not criminal?
To give up so easily they must have known they had no case to start with. So all that is left is demanding money with menaces isn't it?

Graeme Irvine said...

A commonsense decision. I'm no lawyer but I can't see any libel in her words either. It may have been a silly comparison, but Speakers are notoriously silly, taking taxis t do the shopping and the like, and this one may be sillier than most, but being silly is not against the law.

Now if she had said it for fun....

Citizens of London must realize there is almost nothing they are allowed to do… and least of all may they do unusual actions "for fun". People must not do things for fun. There is no reference to fun in any Act of Parliament. It is not for me to say what offence the appellant has committed, but I am satisfied that he has committed some offence, for which he has been most properly punished."

Lord Light, the Lord Chief Justice. "Is It a Free Country?" A.P. Herbert.

Steve Jones said...

@Phil J

"So all that is left is demanding money with menaces isn't it?"

That would be a criminal matter; extortion or something like it. In that case you would have to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this was simply not a matter or a different interpretation of the Sally Bercow's comments but a deliberate attempt to extract money through menaces. I'm pretty sure that no reputable solicitor would go anywhere near such a thing.

However, it does go to the core of what I beleive the libel reform activists would like to see. It's not so much the interpretation of the law in court (although that is clearly an issue), but the ability of complainants like this to close down debate by the mere threat of a libel action. That requires a change in law - if it was something already covered under criminal law it would not be an issue.

It's worth noting that this issue is not confined to libel of course. There have been letters threatening legal actions to those deemed to have infringed copyright (witness ACS:Law) and there are many examples of companies controlling parking rights doing the same thing. However, the libel case is generally worse, if only because of the immense financial risk.

Sometimes the civil law can be far more threatening than criminal as the financial consequences can go beyond a mere fine.

Pigasus said...

While probably not in the interests of Ms. Bercow, I would have liked to have seen this go to trial. I realize the justices, you and Ms. Bercow all probably have better things to do than hear how Migwatch and Sir Andrew got their feelings hurt. Still, this case would have made a nice matching bookend with BCA vs. Singh.

Libel reform is necessary. In the mean time, it would not be a bad thing if the professionally offended had to worry about making even bigger fools of themselves in public.

Ben Murphy said...

REPORT ON A NO-SCORE DRAW

On the 3rd October, the Arsenal team visited Stamford Bridge. We had been advised by our coaching staff to prevent the players of Chelsea from kicking the ball into our goal and that we should, if possible, kick the ball into their net. However, after subsequent interaction between the two teams, we graciously granted them permission to kick the ball into our goal two times. This is an indication of our commitment to beautiful free-flowing football. In return, Carlo Ancelotti assured us that it was never his intention to destroy the Emirates Stadium. In view of this assurance, we are willing to let the matter rest.

Demetrius said...

What is annoying about so much of this kind of thing is that is getting the way of a more sensible analysis of what the future might hold in terms of numbers, effects and liabilities. All this argy bargy about past 'isms and their toxic legacy does not help working out all our futures.

Alex B said...

And the punishment for the solicitors for threatening what appears to be a baseless claim is ...? It seems that until there is a personal consequence for both the potential claimants and the group of well known solicitors who support them, then people like Bercow will continue to suffer from thousands of pounds of out of pocket expenses just to prevent a writ being filed.

bwims said...

I cannot see why there is so much vitriol against the MigrationWatch position. I started reading this blog as I admired the free speech postion about Paul Chambers. However, it seems to me that accusations of racism and xyzphobia are classic ways of closing down debate. This stifling of debate by associating your opponent with unspeakable fascists is no better than misusing Anti-terrorist legislation, e.g. to stop protests outside parliament, and is the hallmark of totalianarism.

The fact that Bercow knuckled under shows that she felt herself to be in the wrong. You may think she was being deprived of her freedom of speech, by threat of libel action, but, sometimes, people DO slander and libel, in order to shut down debate, and this seems to be one of those instances.

Dr. Brian Blood said...

Could this be a model for revising the procedures in libel cases?

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/8070122/Lawyers-to-be-kept-out-of-divorce-battles.html