“Only truth is libellous”, one of my Gurus told me when I was a Registrar in a psychiatric unit in a London District General Hospital, England. Before then, I always thought that if you told a lie about someone and he was “defamed”, or “hurt”, then that constituted libel.
If you look at a few famous cases, you will begin to wonder.
Case 1 – Preying on Hope, Charlatan and Sharks
The libel action brought by a former consultant cardiologist in a leading London teaching hospital against Channel 4 over the programme “Preying on Hope” (broadcast in 1994) eventually collapsed.
The BMJ reported:
“A £2m libel action brought against Channel 4 by a former consultant cardiologist at one of London's leading teaching hospitals collapsed last week after he admitted that errors in scientific papers coauthored by him appeared to be 'more than an honest slip of the pen'.
Dr Peter Nixon, a consultant at Charing Cross Hospital until his retirement six years ago, withdrew his action and agreed to pay £765,520 in costs to Channel 4, which he claimed had branded him a charlatan, unfit to practise medicine.
Dr Nixon, who claimed that hyperventilation could cause a range of illnesses, including many heart attacks, Gulf War syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder and premenstrual tension, sued Channel Four, Mr Campbell, and his company Investigation and Production (TV) Limited over the programme "Preying on Hope," broadcast in February 1994. The programme secretly filmed and recorded a consultation with an AIDS patient, Ian Hughes, who died in 1996.”
“We all make the odd error, but to ascribe HIV associated lethargy to overbreathing and treat with valium is a little stranger than odd.”
After being landed with a bill of nearly £2m for this case, the Medical Defence Union announced that it would no longer defend libel action for its members as a matter of course.
Case 2 – The MMR Autism scareDr Wakefield, who started the MMR Autism scare in 1998, sued Channel 4, 20/20 Productions, and the investigative reporter Brian Deer, who presented the Dispatches programme MMR: What They Didn't Tell You in November 2004. The programme criticised his methods and accused him of undisclosed conflicts of interest. His action was funded by the Medical Protection Society.
In 2007, he dropped his libel action, as reported by BMJ.
Case 3 – The Politician and his Paris hotel billThe most famous libel case in recent times must belong to, you have guessed it, a politician: Jonathan Aitken. The Guardian claimed that he (then Defence Minister) stayed at The Ritz in Paris at the expense of his Saudi friends, whilst he swore on oath that his wife paid the bill. He lost and was sentenced to 18 months for perjury. He once famously declared:
"If it falls to me, to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country, then with a simple sword of truth, and the trusty shield of traditional British fair play, then so be it."
In a BBC article on the retirement of the renowned libel lawyer George Carman QC, the BBC commented:
“But Mr Carman's defence of the Guardian newspaper when disgraced former minister Jonathan Aitken took a libel suit against it, was one of his most celebrated cases.”
Case 4 – Defamation of McDonald’s?
What about defamation of big corporations? Can anything be bigger than McDonald's Restaurants v Morris & Steel case? The English court action for libel filed by McDonald's Corporation against the two penniless environmental activists McDonald’s lasted seven years and was eventually declared by European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to be in violation of the Convention on Human Rights.
The Guardian reported:
“……two penniless environmental campaigners who were sued by McDonald's, the global burger chain, yesterday won a ruling at the European court of human rights……Despite the obstacles, the two campaigners won a ruling from the high court that some of the claims in the leaflet were true, in what was described as 'the biggest corporate PR disaster in history'. Mr Justice Bell ruled that the leaflet was correct when it accused the company of paying low wages to its workers, being responsible for cruelty to some of the animals used in its food products, and exploiting children in advertising campaigns.”
Notice the word “true”!
Case 5 – The Truth about Thalidomide Given the lack of a constitution enshrining free speech, we do need some protection against frivolous libel actions and injunctions which try to prevent the truth from being revealed. Otherwise the truth about thalidomide would never have been told.
Luckily, the European Court eventually ruled for The Sunday Times:
“The newspaper then decided to fight the injunction on its investigation into the origins and testing of the drug. The case went right through the British legal system and up to the European Court of Human Rights, which decided that the injunction violated the right of ‘freedom of expression’. The full story of thalidomide could eventually be told in 1976, revealing that both Grünenthal (the maker) and Distillers had not met the basic testing requirements of the time.”
I mentioned thalidomide also because in 2002 Gordon Brown, the then chancellor, attempted to tax the benefits payable through the Thalidomide Trust.