" Paul Foot on libel laws and the left | Madam Miaow Says

Friday, 19 February 2010

Paul Foot on libel laws and the left


Apropos of nothing in particular, here's what the late Paul Foot had to say on libel laws and the left.

An appeal by Paul Foot on behalf of the socialist bookshop Bookmarks.

This is an appeal to all socialists and free thinkers to contribute to the enormous costs of a case brought against socialists by socialists. In August last year, the editor of Socialist Review, Lindsey German, and Bookmarks Publications, the socialist publisher, got a letter from the well known libel lawyers Peter Carter Ruck and Partners on behalf of their clients Quintin Hoare and Branca Magas.

The letter complained about an article written in 1993 by Alex Callinicos (who also got a letter) and included in the book The Balkans, Nationalism and Imperialism, published in 1999 by Bookmarks. The details of the complaint were spelled out in a statement read in open court recently.

Hoare and Magas complained that one passage in the article meant they were both 'apologists' for Franjo Tudjman and his regime in Croatia. This letter is not concerned with the allegations in the original publication. It has been a long tradition in the labour movement that arguments between socialists should be conducted openly and should not, except in extreme circumstances, be tested in the courts by the libel laws. The reason for this tradition is simple. As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford.

This history of this case vindicates that tradition. Quintin Hoare and Branca Magas are well known in British left wing circles. From the outset Bookmarks Publications and Lindsey German made no attempt to justify their article. They sought to settle the matter as soon and as cheaply as possible.

After much correspondence they agreed to make a statement in open court apologising for the article and agreeing to pay each of the plaintiffs £1,500. Carter-Ruck's bill for these proceedings is likely to be over £10,000.

This means that the total bill for bringing the action and pursuing it, though it was undefended, is more than three times the payment made to the two people who made the complaint. And this for an item in a book whose total sale at Bookmarks and other bookshops in the year before the complaint was less than 50!

At no stage did Mr Hoare or Ms Magas approach Bookmarks Publications without their lawyers. They went straight to their lawyers, at no expense to themselves, since Carter-Ruck were operating on a "no win, no fee" basis.

Bookmarks Publications is a small left wing publisher with very few funds, all of which go into developing new publications. The publisher, Lindsey German and Alex Callinicos cannot possibly afford these sums. Hence this appeal to anyone in the socialist and labour movement who would like to express their disapproval of pursuing political arguments through the law courts.

Paul Foot
“... It has been a long tradition in the labour movement that arguments between socialists should be conducted openly and should not, except in extreme circumstances, be tested in the courts by the libel laws. The reason for this tradition is simple. As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford. ... Hence this appeal to anyone in the socialist and labour movement who would like to express their disapproval of pursuing political arguments through the law courts.”

[Quintin Hoare and Branka Magas v Alex Callinicos, Lindsey German and Bookmarks Publications Ltd (Eady J, 6 October 2003)]

12 comments:

VenerableSage said...

Quite right. Resorting to the bourgeois courts -- and thereby taking advantage of Britain's notoriously unfair and unbalanced libel laws -- is certainly no way for any committed and self-respecting socialist to resolve issues with a comrade: in fact, to do so would be a profoundly reactionary act.

I would certainly never trust any so-called comrade who would contemplate such a strategy to watch my back at the barricades.

Chris said...

No, Foot was wrong. The reason for this tradition is that bourgeois law has no place in disputes between socialists in principle. I have no idea what the mechanism for settling such disputes in a socialist society would look like, but it sure as hell would look nothing like the High Court, even if Carter Ruck and his cronies were offering their services free.

Madam Miaow said...

Chris, isn't that what Foot was saying? Or are you picking up on his foregrounding of cost over principle in this case? I think he was trying to tread carefully to prevent the case bankrupting his mates..

Using the law to shut people up is, imho, wrong in a democratic society. For socialists to threaten other socialists with, of all low-down things, the UK libel laws removes them from anything I recognise as socialist.

Pierre said...

Foot was right, of course. Socialists shouldn't use the courts to silence or punish others.

However, Paul Foot himself was very fortunate not to be sued for libel by the woman he falsely insinuated was responsible for murder in his self-deluding book 'Who Killed Hanratty?'

Foot's thesis that Hanratty was innocent of rape and murder was one thing, even though grounded in the false confessions of an attention-seeking self-publicist. However, insinuating that two wholly innocent people were instead responsible for what happened was quite another. Foot cheerily acknowledged his latter error late in his life, breezily indifferent to the distress he had caused to others, and clinging to the end to his rigid conviction of Hanratty's innocence, even in the face of the DNA evidence. At first the evolving science of DNA was greeted with warm enthusiasm by Foot, as he was convinced it would establish Hanratty's innocence. When it supplied evidence of Hanratty's guilt Foot instantly lost his enthusiasm for DNA. 'Who Killed Hanratty?' casts a sizeable stain on Foot's otherwise impressive career as a campaigner and polemicist.

Chris said...

Or are you picking up on his foregrounding of cost over principle in this case?

Well, yeah. Because that seems to be most of his argument. But I'm sure he wouldn't dispute the larger point.

I remember at the time wondering WTF had come over Magas and Hoare, since in the outcome it was clear that the "defendants" entirely accepted that they had got it wrong, so they would presumably have been agreeable to publishing a clarification. I can only suppose that Magas and Hoare had an eye to their Croatian readership, and felt they needed to hammer the point, but even then, to sue without trying to agree out of court seemed mad.

Madam Miaow said...

Thanks, Pierre. I remember Foot defending Hanratty but I missed the later DNA evidence indicating his guilt.

Wasn't there also something about a woman who survived Hanratty and who was dealt with quite brutally by his defenders? So she turned out to be right?

Pierre said...

The rape victim identified Hanratty as her attacker. Foot and the other Hanratty campaigners asserted that her evidence was of doubtful value.

I was referring to a different woman, who was fingered by Foot in his book as having orchestrated the events which culminated in rape and murder. This was pure speculation on his part. If you read 'Who Killed Hanratty?' the insinuation of guilt is clear. Foot was monstrously wrong and, yes, he essentially blamed two separate women for being responsible for what he saw as the capitalist state's framing of Hanratty. The second woman had two children, one of whom as a teenager read Foot's bestselling paperback and was traumatised by the strong suggestion that his mother was a murderess. Foot I think was oblivious of the human distress he caused.

I don't think this was sexism on Foot's part but originated more in his romantic perception of Hanratty as a working-class man framed by capitalist justice. I wouldn't dissent from a Marxist analysis of the judicial system, but even capitalist justice sometimes gets it right when determining matters of guilt or innocence. The DNA evidence is conclusive, unless you choose to believe that forensic science also played its part in framing Hanratty.

Madam Miaow said...

There is a narcissism in much of the left, Pierre, that means they identify with and project onto the world their ideal self: potent white working-class males (as was in the post-war Britain of their youth).

That this means trampling over real-life people — sometimes non-white women standing up for themselves — seems entirely in keeping with what you describe above. I wonder if Foot ever understood the parallels?

"Foot I think was oblivious of the human distress he caused."

Sadly, he was also oblivious to the human distress his comrades caused in his party. Even when he was drawn diagrams.

But the reason that I posted his appeal was his central point: that socialists have no business threatening each other with the very bourgeois laws they purport to oppose.

Chris: yes, what was in it for them? Again there's a brutalising punitive aspect to much of left behaviour that seems to relish power over others. I don't know whether this was what motivated the pursuit of a case, already admitted by the defendants, that enriched some pretty loathsome lawyers. But having been on the receiving end, I'm surprised that the partner of one of them is said to have been bandying around the L word.

Brendan Montague said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brendan Montague said...

Foot would have been equally unequivocal in denouncing socialists who spread unfounded rumour, resort to innuendo and defame fellow socialists in print or on the Internet.

Madam Miaow said...

You'd have to go beyond insinuation, Brendan, and be specific about your point. What's the "unfounded rumour", f'rinstance?

Foot's answer when some of us wrote to him asking wtf was going on with the SWP leadership and giving him chapter and verse was to ignore it. Very sad.

LetNotTheMan said...

Brendan Montague, on your blog you advertise events given by the Left-Platform associated "Mutiny", which indicates that you are either unaware of (or approving of?) the behaviour of one JR, a man well versed in rumour, innuendo and defamation.

The pity of Paul Foot (among other things) is that he wrote an endorsement of JR just after being given witness evidence of that individual's grossly unacceptable and damaging behaviour. Evidently, Foot preferred to receive continued adulation as a prince of the Left rather than risk a little friction in order to show solidarity with fellow socialists who had suffered ill treatment (it's not as if he would have suffered any material disadvantage if he'd stuck his neck out). His talents, reputation and security put him in a perfect position, but he passed on the chance.

As it happens, though, he was very far from "denouncing" Madam Miaow, as you are insinuating. Instead, he wrote giving her highest praise for her services to the Left (in a signed statement I've seen for myself).

In the end, who do you trust? A man who carries a greater responsibility than anyone else for wrecking the chances of creating a movement on the Left in the years between the inauguration of Blair's reign of privatisation and war and the reelection of the Tories? If not, you might find you've more to learn than you might imagine from Madam Miaow and a few others with first-hand testimony of highly unsocialist behaviour on the part of avowed socialists who are still in a position to fool the unwary.

ShareThis