SEEN one way, it is nothing short of a scandal. Small non-British news outlets and humble non-British authors (in many cases catering almost wholly to a non-British public) are being sued in English courts by rich, mighty foes. The cost of litigation is so high ($200,000 for starters, and $1m-plus once you get going) that they cannot afford to defend themselves. The plaintiffs often win by default, leaving their victims humiliated and massively in debt.
There is another side to the story, of course. Attempts to collect damages for libel and costs from people outside Britain are rare and often fruitless. Just because someone is rich, or holds a foreign passport, or lives abroad, that does not mean that they should not seek justice in an English court. Sometimes the defendants are global news organisations with a substantial presence in Britain. Sometimes the plaintiffs are dissidents, complaining about libellous attacks on them by state-friendly foreign media; a lawsuit in London may be their only chance of redress.
Yet some cases are still startling. Two Ukrainian-based news organisations, for example, have been sued in London by Rinat Akhmetov, one of that country's richest men. One, the Kyiv Post, had barely 100 subscribers in Britain. It hurriedly apologised as part of an undisclosed settlement. Mr Akhmetov then won another judgment, undefended, against Obozrevatel (Observer), a Ukraine-based internet news site that publishes only in Ukrainian, with a negligible number of readers in England. Judgment was given in default and Mr Akhmetov was awarded £50,000 (now $75,000) in damages in June last year. The best-known case is that of Rachel Ehrenfeld, a New York-based author. She lost by default in a libel action brought by a litigious Saudi national, Khalid bin Mahfouz, over allegations made in her book "Funding Evil". It was published in America and available in Britain only via internet booksellers. Since then she has been campaigning hard for a change in the law.
Yet no attempt has been made to collect the £50,000 in costs and damages awarded against Ms Ehrenfeld, says Mr Mahfouz's lawyer, Laurence Harris. He adds: "It doesn't appear that we've had any chilling effect at all on her free speech." (Even now, British booksellers are offering second-hand copies of Ms Ehrenfeld's book over the internet.) Although Ms Ehrenfeld is sometimes portrayed as being unable to come to Britain because of the lawsuit, he says there is no reason why she can't visit England "unless she is bringing a lot of money with her". He notes: "We abolished debtors' prisons some time ago."
Nonetheless, cases such as these have outraged campaigners for press freedom in both Britain and America, who are trying to change the law in both countries. The states of New York and Illinois have passed laws giving residents the right to go to local courts to have foreign libel judgments declared unenforceable if issued by courts where free-speech standards are lower than in America. Ms Ehrenfeld sought such a ruling in late 2007 in New York state courts but failed; with the new law in place she may try again.
Now the campaign has moved to the American Congress. A bill introduced into the House of Representatives last year by Steve Cohen, a Democrat, sailed through an early vote but stood no chance of becoming law. A much tougher version submitted to the Senate, the Free Speech Protection Act, also gives American-based litigants an additional right to countersue for harassment. The bills have been strongly supported by lobby groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, which fear that the protections offered by the First Amendment are being infringed by the unfettered use of libel law in non-American jurisdictions.
Similar concerns are being expressed in Britain. In a debate in the House of Commons last month Denis MacShane, a senior Labour MP, said that "libel tourism" was "an international scandal" and "a major assault on freedom of information". Lawyers and courts, he said, were "conspiring to shut down the cold light of independent thinking and writing about what some of the richest and most powerful people in the world are up to." He cited, among others, cases heard in London where a Tunisian had sued a Dubai-based television channel and an Icelandic bank had sued a Danish newspaper.
Mr MacShane also said the Law Society should investigate the actions of two leading British firms that act for foreign litigants, Schillings and Carter-Ruck, implying that they were "actively touting for business". Neither wished to comment on the record, though both, like other big law firms, have websites promoting their services and highlighting their successes.
British members of a parliamentary committee dealing with the media are now broadening a planned inquiry into privacy law and press regulation. The chairman, John Whittingdale, says the committee has received a large number of submissions from people worried about libel tourism.
These go well beyond the usual media-freedom campaigners. Groups that investigate government misbehaviour say their efforts are now being hampered by English libel law. "London has become a magnet for spurious cases. This is a terrifying prospect to most NGOs because of legal costs alone," says Dinah PoKemper, general counsel at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. It recently received a complaint from lawyers acting for a foreign national named in a report on an incident of mass murder. "We were required to spend thousands of pounds in defending ourselves against the prospect of a libel suit, when we had full confidence in the accuracy of our report," she says.
The problem is not just money. Under English libel law, a plaintiff must prove only that material is defamatory; the defendant then has to justify it, usually on grounds of truth or fairness. That places a big burden on human-rights groups that compile reports from confidential informants—usually a necessity when dealing with violent and repressive regimes. People involved in this kind of litigation in Britain say that they have evidence of instances where witnesses have been intimidated by sleuthing and snooping on behalf of the plaintiffs, who may have powerful state backers keen to uncover their opponents' sources and methods.
A further concern is what Mark Stephens, a London libel lawyer, calls "privacy tourism", arising out of recent court judgments that have increased protection for celebrities wanting to keep out of the public eye. In December alone he has seen seven threatening letters sent by London law firms to American media and internet sites about photos taken of American citizens in America. "Law firms are trawling their celebrity client base," he says.
The more controversial and complicated international defamation law becomes, the better for lawyers. The main outcome of the proposed new American law would be still more court cases, with lucratively knotty points of international jurisdiction involved. Prominent Americans with good lawyers may gain some relief, but for news outlets in poor countries it is likely to make little difference. And as Floyd Abrams, an American lawyer and free-speech defender, notes, a book publisher, for example, will still be nervous about an author who has written a "libellous book".
Mr Stephens, the London lawyer, is taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights, where he hopes to persuade judges that the size of English libel damages is disproportionate. If you get only around £42,000 for losing an eye, why should you get that much or more from someone writing something nasty about you, he asks. But even limiting damages is not enough. For reform to have any effect, it will have to deal with the prohibitive cost of any litigation in London.