At long last, the issue of libel tourism has come out into the open. The Labour MP Denis MacShane instigated a debate in the House of Commons two days ago to draw attention to the fact that Britain, the cradle of free speech and political liberty, has become the epicentre of the attempt to shut down discussion of terrorism and other noxious activities which involve certain wealthy foreigners, who are taking advantage of Britain's ferocious libel laws to silence all those who try to write about them. Remarkably, American legislatures are being forced to pass bills to stop British courts punishing American writers for publishing books and articles that may be freely read in the United States but about which foreigners with deep enough pockets can sue them in the British courts.
So pernicious is this phenomenon that even to draw attention to it is to risk a libel suit. But whatever is said in Parliament can be reported. So for the first time many can learn, as MacShane said,
...the Kafkaesque position of the writer Rachel Ehrenfeld, whose book, entitled ‘Funding Evil', examined the flow of money towards extremist organisations that preach the ideology of hate associated with Wahhabism and other democracy-denying aspects of fundamentalist Islamic ideology. It is not exactly a secret that a great deal of the money that has financed fundamentalist extremist organisations that support jihad has come from Saudi Arabia. Ms Ehrenfeld's book, which was published in America, not Britain, named a Saudi billionaire called Mr. Khalid bin Mahfouz. Although the book was published in the United States, and was not on sale in any British bookshop, he found lawyers to sue in Britain. A British judge imposed a fine and costs on Ms Ehrenfeld, and said that her book should be destroyed, even though she was not in the court. No American court would have entertained such overt censorship.
The fullest examination is vital of those raising money, sometimes ostensibly for charitable work, but which ends up promoting fundamentalist ideology that scrambles young men's and boys' minds and leads them to become terrorists. There is no freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia, so it is the duty of others to expose what is happening. With the help of British libel lawyers, Mr. Mahfouz has launched 33 suits against those who are investigating this important area of public concern. Cambridge University Press was obliged to pulp its book ‘Alms for Jihad', written by Robert Collins and J. Millard Burr, rather than face a libel action in British courts, which seem at the moment to side with those who finance extremism rather than those who seek to curb it. The case of Mr. Nadhmi Auchi also comes to mind. What is happening when Cambridge University Press, not some odd, little, obsessive publishing house, but one of the flowers of British publishing for centuries, has to pulp a book because British courts will not uphold freedom of expression?
A Tunisian has used the British courts to sue the Dubai television network, al-Arabiya, which broadcasts in Arabic. Last November, a British judge awarded the man £165,000 without al-Arabiya being in court. Mr. Mohammed Sawalha attacked this summer's celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel and referred to the ‘Jewish evil' in Britain. That was reported on the political website, Harry's place, and immediately Mr. Sawalha threatened to sue. At a time when we need the maximum examination of who is financing ideology that leads to terrorism, we find that British courts, judges and lawyers are acting in the opposite direction to silence investigations. I doubt whether any of the lawyers, the judge or court officials in question can read Arabic or have any real acquaintance with Wahhabism or Islamic fundamentalist ideology, and yet they act as defenders of those who promote extremist ideology, not those who try to expose it.
... the surreal nature of libel tourism can be found in the case of the Danish paper, Ekstra Bladet, which found itself being sued by the Iceland-based bank, Kaupthing, after it criticised it. Kaupthing's default has caused distress to British savers, and every Member will have a constituent who has lost money and is very concerned. The collapse and wrongdoing of Kaupthing might be about to return Iceland to a rural economy. One would have thought, therefore, that exposure of the bank's practices would have been in the widest public interest, but no. The British libel firm, Schilling and Lom [now called Schillings] —it certainly made plenty of shillings out of this case—which seems to specialise in touting for business, along with the infamous Carter-Ruck, acted for Kaupthing in London on the grounds that the articles critical of Kaupthing were available on the web... It would be helpful if the Law Society investigated the behaviour of firms such as Schilling and Lom and Carter-Ruck, because actively touting for business is a serious problem.
The LibDem MP Norman Lamb then added:
The case involves Nadhmi Auchi, whom the right hon. Gentleman mentioned. He is a British citizen—an Iraqi exile—and he is reported to be a multi-billionaire. He was convicted in France in 2003 of fraud in a trial involving the oil company Elf. Importantly, he continues to assert his innocence of the charges—there was a conviction, but he is pursuing routes of appeal against it. He was barred from entering the United States in 2005. My interest in the matter is in his connections to Tony Rezco, who was convicted of fraud, money laundering and bribe-related charges in Illinois, and who is currently in prison pending sentencing. We understand that sentencing has been delayed, and it has been suggested that he should talk to federal prosecutors, especially about allegations against Illinois Governor Blagojevich, which are being investigated. There is political interest in the US because of the connections between Rezko and President-elect Obama. I make no allegation at all relating to the latter.
There have been reports that a company related to Mr. Auchi registered a loan of $3.5 million to Tony Rezko on 23 May 2005. That and other alleged connections are obviously of great interest to investigative journalists and others. More to the point, it is legitimate to investigate such a matter, given that Mr. Auchi is a prominent British citizen with political connections in this country and overseas. As I said, it is not appropriate to go into more detail, but it is alleged that Mr. Auchi and his lawyers, Carter-Ruck, have been making strenuous efforts to close down public debate. Of course, it is absolutely legitimate for any citizen to demand accurate and rigorous investigation and reporting. The question is whether UK libel laws have the disproportionate effect of discouraging legitimate reporting. Many believe that they do.
On 28 June, Private Eye reported Mr. Auchi's instructions to Carter-Ruck. The article states:
‘Carter-Ruck's first target was a series of revelatory articles'—
concerning Mr. Auchi—
‘printed in the Observer in 2003, which American bloggers and journalists were starting to notice.'
Later, however, the article states:
‘You will search in vain now, however, to find most of the Observer's reports.'
Those reports were from five years ago. It has been reported in the US that Carter-Ruck has been writing to US and British newspapers and websites demanding removal of the material that it deems defamatory of its client. Many are concerned about the fact that creating a link on a blog to a newspaper article, which may have been available for several years to anyone searching the internet, can result in action being threatened or taken. Is that legitimate? Alternatively, should a blogger be able to rely on the journalistic integrity of reliable news sources when a story has already been published and when it has existed for several years?
Indeed. The development of libel tourism has become an absolute scandal. The most sinister thing of all is that – by definition -- people don't know what it is they aren't being allowed to know. And some of that information raises questions of the most acute importance concerning both the integrity of our politicians and others in public life, and the security of this country when it is under threat of attack. The debate was a most welcome first step in getting this scandal into the public domain at all. MPs should not let it rest there.