Sunday, September 30, 2007

"poor indeed"

posted by k

" Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed."

I've seen those words quoted with approval on a number of websites. They even appear in the Harvard Gazette as an example of the value poets like Shakespeare place on an individual's reputation. But the websites rarely mention which character in Othello speaks those words. It's Iago, the villain of the play, and he uses his praise of reputation to further the plot which will end in the deaths of Othello, Desdemona and his own wife.

The law of libel does protect reputation. But the case of Craig Murray, whose blog was silenced by Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov, raises questions about how this is done, who benefits and what truths are being silenced.

Of course, there is some value in libel laws. For instance, a candidate for a job or for public office shoud not be able to spread lies about another candidate. Nor should journalists be able to ruin the reputations, careers and personal happiness of footballers, pop singers or politicians by printing lies about them. I haven't been too worried about people in the public gaze moving to protect themselves from press intrusion. I don't see why I have the right to know about a sportsman's legal sexual preferences or behaviour on the spurious grounds that athletic brilliance turns its possessor into a role model.

But what about truths that need to be told? The Usmanov story - not mentioned in the press - concerns activities in other countries where Usmanov is protected by the regimes. If Usmanov really is, as alleged, a thug, criminal, racketeer and heroin trafficker, this is of direct concern as he attempts to take over Arsenal Football Club. The allegation of rape is trickier since the victim and witnesses seem to have disappeared before the case could come to court.

Usmanov isn't just accused of a particularly unpleasant criminal career. His role within Gazprom raises important questions about the role of big business in international political processes. It is of particular concern as European nations rush to privatise essential services. (The question has been raised by Tom Wise MEP - briefed by Craig Murray - in the European Parliament. Reporting has been lamentably scanty although the speech was given under parliamentary privilege and reporting is not covered by libel laws.) And that's before the question of human rights and international obligations is considered.

Craig Murray challenged Alisher Usmanov to sue him for libel and test the allegations in open court. This is a brave challenge. If Craig Murray were to lose, he would stand to lose everything, given the gravity of the allegations. He attacks both Usmanov's personal reputation and his international role. He urges people not to do business with him. A jury finding in Usmanov's favour would reasonably present him with huge damages.

But Usmanov doesn't want to go before a jury. His solicitors won't sue Craig Murray as the author of the allegations but instead attacked and threatened the people who published them - in this case, the company providing the web-host for his blog. Courageous individuals can be silenced by putting pressure on publishers, printers, bookshops and webhosts. It's the modern equivalent to the licensing of the press against which Milton wrote in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica. Milton argued that Truth should be allowed to "grapple" with falsehood in open debate through publication - and he feared that the licensing of books - the prevention of publication - would injure Truth.

At the moment, questions of libel seem to be decided with more attention to wealth than truth, though the McLibel case demonstrates some of the problems big corporations may face against poor, determined defendants.

But if the poor are libelled, they don't have the same chance to defend their reputations. The rich can defame the poor with little fear of prosecution. Usmanov is better protected than the refugee who flees his power in Uzbekistan or Russia. I doubt a cleaner at Arsenal Football Club could afford the fees charged by Usmanov's lawyers. It's unlikely the poor could even raise the court fees.

The current law doesn't seem to protect the truth. It doesn't act equally toward rich and poor. It has little to do with justice or the public good.

If you have a suggestion for how the British libel laws should be changed, please post a comment here or join the detailed debate at Ministry of Truth.

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