Law Reform

More Libel News

Dennis MacShane had an Adjournment Debate in Parliament on Tuesday.

It is worth reading in full. You’ll see a mention of Harry’s Place and its run in with Mr Sawalha, a man who was identified by the BBC as a fugitive Hamas commander, and who is now one of the leading lights of London’s Islamist scene.

However, I thought it would be worthwhile to reprint one passage of the debate in full.

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD):

I shall offer one case study—I stress that I do not know all the details or the full story—that illustrates how the threat of defamation proceedings using, primarily but not exclusively, UK libel laws may succeed in closing down legitimate inquiry and reporting. I should also stress that I do not want to use this opportunity to take advantage of the privilege that we enjoy to make fresh allegations against any individual.

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?

For reasons I think you can wholly appreciate, I must keep the comments to this piece closed.