Shooting The Messenger - How Britain's Chilling Laws Put Freedom of Speech In The Deep Freeze


These are dangerous days to be a messenger. Hardly a week passes without another story of a journalist or photographer shot, murdered or imprisoned as they attempt to do their job - to give witness to events in a dangerous world.

We like to think that Britain, with its raucous tabloid press, lively literary scene and tradition of free expression, is a beacon of free speech in a world where so many are voiceless or gagged by the authorities. Sadly not any more.

These are dark days for freedom of expression in Britain. Not only has the country become a haven for 'libel tourists' -- usually rich outsiders who use Britain's notorious and widely-discredited laws to take punitive action against publications or authors -- but judges have interpreted European Union human rights legislation in favour of privacy versus freedom of expression.

The result is that Britain is suffering from a severe case of 'libel chill', where publishers and newspapers are afraid to publish a story because the subject, usually a celebrity, might decide to sue. The huge costs of defending actions and the way the law favours the litigant means that these days publishers shy away from difficult areas.

The way rich celebrities, usually men, have used the courts to gag newspapers and others from revealing details of their lives, usually an affair with a young woman, is a further worrying development that impinges on serious reporting, on issues of public importance, scientific inquiry and the controversial activity of whistleblowers. Freedom of expression in Britain should not depend on which side of the bed, or more accurately whose bed, philandering soccer stars, actors and TV stars get out on in the morning. This though is increasingly the case.

The law in Britain is in disrepute, its judges in disarray and even the Prime Minister David Cameron expressed himself 'uneasy' at the country's headlong legal rush into the kind of officially-sanctioned repression normally found in countries like Iran and Russia.

A joint committee of six Members of Parliament and six members of the House of Lords has been set up, under the chairmanship of Lord Mawhinney of Peterborough, to produce a draft defamation bill to address these thorny issues. It has to report by the end of July this year.

Last week English PEN, a highly-respected not for profit organization acting on behalf of writers, asked me to give evidence for them to present to the committee.

For my sins I am probably the most high profile British biographer who has been unable to publish his books in his home country.

My last two books on the actors Tom Cruise and Angelina Jolie failed to find a UK publisher because of the phenomenon of 'libel chill'. That is to say publishers shied away from publication not because of any inherent difficulty with the truth contained in the pages of the books, but because they feared expensive and time-consuming litigation within a system that is inherently biased against the author. The libel courts are the only branch of the judiciary where a defendant is guilty until proved innocent. One publisher rejected the Angelina Jolie book out of hand based on their fear that, and I quote, 'Angelina Jolie might think about taking action.' Of course Tom Cruise and his association with Scientology, an organization notorious for taking out expensive legal action against perceived critics in order to force their silence was always going to be a tough call. So it proved.

To put this situation in context, both books have been published in, among other countries, Vietnam, China, and Serbia, not places normally associated with liberal attitudes towards freedom of speech.

This then is the practical demonstration of what is known as 'libel chill', the decision to shy away from publication because of the outrageous cost and difficulty of defending a libel suit, or even the notional prospect of one.

The practical results of Britain's libel laws and the interpretation of the privacy legislation mean that the art of biography or life writing, certainly of the living, is no longer practiced in Britain. Ironically biography is one of the few literary genres which is essentially Anglo-Saxon in origin, first made fashionable by James Boswell's life of Dr. Johnson.

This parlous state of affairs provoked the US Congress to pass legislation protecting its citizens from British laws. The United Nations Human Rights commission has twice identified Britain's libel laws as cause for concern.

Isn't it ironic that the long-cherished liberal ideal of freedom of expression is in danger of being snuffed out in Britain just as in the Arab world and elsewhere people are fighting and dying for the right to be heard.

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As one of the world’s best-known biographers and a leading authority on modern celebrity, Morton has been called "the king of celebrity biographers." He became an overnight sensation with the publication of his groundbreaking 1992 biography revealing the secret world of the late Diana, Princess…

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