If you want to see hypocrisy in action, look at England’s libel courts. I warned during the rage against Blair and Bush that liberals were playing into the hands of reactionaries. Unintentionally or not, their depiction of a desire to democratise the Middle East as a neocon swindle provided every apologist for tyranny and censorship with the argument that liberty was a merely a plot by a cabal bent on world domination.
Last week, the august figure of Lord Hoffmann made my point for me. In his Dame Ann Ebsworth memorial lecture , the retired law lord had the establishment audience purring with approval when he dismissed the international clamour against our libel laws as a neocon scam. The determination of American legislators to make English libel verdicts unenforceable in the US was not a result of legitimate concern about a law used by the super-rich, but had been manufactured by an American right-winger, Rachel Ehrenfeld, after she lost a libel case brought by Khalid bin Mahfouz.
I will give you the background, as his lordship forgot to mention it. As well as going for Ehrenfeld, the Saudi billionaire used the English law to stop us reading Alms for Jihad: Charity and Terrorism in the Islamic World, by the J Millard Burr and Robert O Collins, Matthew Carr’s Unknown Soldiers, Michael Griffin’s Reaping the Whirlwind and Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud. Their editors could not fight the cases because, as Simon Master of Unger’s Random House explained, the cost was “vastly more than the publisher could hope to earn from the book”. Ehrenfeld’s Funding Evil was a target because she also alleged that bin Mahfouz had given money to al-Qaida. Even though she had not published an English edition and only 20 or so copies had reached England via Amazon, and even though she couldn’t afford to fight the case either, Mr Justice Eady banned her book in England.
I was struck by his willingness to allow the plutocrat to defend his reputation when by any reasonable standard he had no “good name” to lose. According to the New York authorities, bin Mahfouz had perpetrated “a gross mis-statement of the true financial picture” of the affairs of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which journalists described as the most corrupt bank in financial history when it collapsed nearly 20 years ago, although new contenders for that title have now emerged. He turned up in Ireland where an official inquiry into the ripe corruption of Charlie Haughey’s government found that he bought himself Irish citizenship over lunch with “the boss”.
Hoffmann was not interested in why the English courts ignored bin Mahfouz’s shady past. Nor did he mention how the Saudi turned Irishman had sued the leftish Craig Unger. He directed his sly attack solely at Ms Ehrenfeld, because she had the gall to respond to Eady’s attempt to silence her by persuading American writers and publishers of all political persuasions to demand protection from the English judiciary. He went for her by pretending she was the inspiration of the libel reform campaign, when he should have known that the case of Simon Singh is the rallying point for English liberals, and then by painting her as a monster from beyond pale. Richard Perle, who supported the second Iraq war and advised the “Israeli right-wing Likud party”, was on the board of her “neoconservative” thinktank, he intoned.
Ehrenfeld had “firm views on the Palestinian question” and just in case anyone had missed his laboured point, he rubbed it in by saying that she “was born in Israel but lives in the United States”. Ehrenfeld and the neocons were trying to create an “American legal hegemony” and extend their constitutional protections of free speech to the whole planet, he warned. Well, God damn those scheming neocon bastards. Damn them to hell for impugning the fine work of Mr Justice Eady and dear old Carter-Ruck, particularly when, as Hoffmann explained: “The complaints about libel tourism come entirely from the Americans: I do not get the impression that there are large numbers of litigants with no connection with this country who are coming here to bring actions for libel.”
Allow me to disabuse the unlearned judge of his “impression” by telling him that if he had bothered to do a minimum of research, he would have found that the Icelandic bank Kaupthing sued the Danish tabloid Ekstra Bladet in London for alleging that it was engaged in tax evasion just before it went bust. Are the Danes neocons? The American health conglomerate NMT is suing British doctor Peter Wilmshurst in London for expressing his doubts about its treatments in an American medical journal. The dictator of the poverty-stricken Republic of the Congo tried to sue Global Witness for breach of privacy after it published details of how his son was spending a fortune on luxury hotels and goods, while Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov successfully sued the Kyiv Post, which has just 100 British subscribers, and the Obozrevatel website, which does not even publish in English.
To cap it all, Hoffmann’s indulgent colleagues in the law lords allowed Roman Polanski to sue Vanity Fair by video link from France because he feared that if he set foot in London the police would have arrested him for raping a 13-year-old girl. Hoffmann might also have phoned Dinah PoKempner, the chief legal adviser for Human Rights Watch in New York, who would have told him how much she worries about what the English judiciary could do to her reports on arbitrary arrest and official murder. When I called her, she said something that made me want to weep: “I don’t understand why England does this when it such a moral country in other ways.” The deluded woman clearly thought that we should be proud to be the land of John Milton, John Stuart Mill and George Orwell ﾖ a beacon of liberty, not liberty’s enemy; that if the Saudis or Congolese could not criticise their kleptomaniac rulers, they should know that at least writers could stand up to them in England.
The English invented free speech. In 1644, Milton denounced Parliament’s censorship of the press by saying that a free people did not need judges to tell them what to read. “Lords and Commons of England, consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are the governors: a nation not slow and dull, but of quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit, acute to invent, subtle and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point the highest that humane capacity can soar to.” Ever since Milton, judges have tried to contain the freedom he fought for. That they can now use slogans coined on the left should be a reason for shame and not only for the legal profession.