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Latest 04 March 2021

They want to silence us

The law of libel has been reformed to make it harder for those who say they have been defamed to win in court. But the world the law envisages is not always the real world.

In the real world, the costs of defending libel proceedings are prohibitive for all except the wealthy. And the financial stress of defending a claim can be unbearable. The consequence is that the threat of defamation proceedings can be used to harass those who seek to speak truth to wealth and power. And they can be, and are, used to force the withdrawal – and sometimes the humiliating withdrawal – of statements which are true or at the very least a reasonable opinion.

Exacerbating this state of affairs – we think – is the routine practice of issuing threats of libel proceedings and stating those threats to be confidential and not for publication so that the world at large never knows you are threatening to sue your critics. We think that if you want to use libel law to silence criticism – be that criticism fair or unfair – you should know your actions will be public. Otherwise, you can avoid all costs attached to taking advantage of your wealth and power to silence criticism.

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We are aware of responsible campaigning groups seeking to hold men to account for sexual misconduct who have felt obliged to withdraw campaigns under threat of being sued. We are aware of defamation proceedings threatened against newspapers seeking to protect trans rights. And I have been threatened with defamation proceedings by several hugely wealthy men on the right or far right of politics for speaking truth to power.

More recently, I have repeatedly been threatened with defamation proceedings by those who have won vast contracts through the Government’s VIP lane. I have received two such threats from Pestfix. And last month I received a threat from Andrew Mills, the former advisor to Liz Truss’ Board of Trade and the man behind the £252m deal won by Ayanda through the VIP lane. No proceedings have been issued but those cases have cost us, in aggregate, tens of thousands of pounds to resist.

Mr Mills’ threat was marked “Strictly Private and Confidential. Not for Publication or Dissemination” but I don’t think these threats to sue on matters of public interest should be made behind closed doors. So I am publishing his letter with my reply.

I want to be as clear as I can be that what I have to say about Andrew Mills’ letter, and his actions in instructing lawyers to write to me, are stated in my reply to that letter. It is for the court, should Mr Mills issue proceedings, and not me to decide whether his actions in issuing that threat were justified or not. Nothing here should be taken as a comment on his actions and sometimes the law says it is right to sue for defamation. However, my intention in publishing his letter together with my reply is to put what I think should be in the public domain in the public domain.

Going forward we at Good Law Project intend to be active in this space to try and protect those who speak truth to power. We will be organising an event for journalists and campaigners on how to defend themselves against the threat to accountability posed by the current state of defamation law.

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