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Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Good Wife, British Libel Law, And the Power of Twitter

Okay, okay. I’m behind in my TV viewing. Still, Episode 2 of this season’s The Good Wife (The Death Zone) hit a topic near and dear to my heart: UK libel laws. I’ve railed against the draconian British libel laws since Litopia After Dark started. Finally, reforms are in the works. But reforms are slow and the awful effects of these laws are still being felt by writers around the world.

In this episode, our heroine, Alicia, defends a book author against a libel suit in the U.S. When she wins, a bit of libel tourism occurs and the suit is refilled in the UK. Uh oh. For anyone who has followed what’s going on with UK libel, you know that this is a very bad development for the poor author.

One of my favorite actors, Eddie Izzard, plays the evil British lawyer:God, I do love you Yanks. You are so easy to distract. With our accents and our periwigs and our tea and crumpets. But I am not the England of Big Ben and bobbies. I'm not the England of doilies and cucumber sandwiches. I’m the England of football hooligans and Jack the Ripper. And this England don’t play nice, and they don’t play fair, and they don’t. Ever. Stop.” 

The lawyer going after our hapless writer says, “Do you know the key distinction between the libel laws in your country and mine? The burden of proof is reversed.” Yep, they got that exactly right. In the UK, the writer has to prove that what they wrote was true. That’s a big problem if they’re the only witness, or if they relied on interviews on the scene rather than something written.

The plot is about mountain climbing and a death that occurred in “The Death Zone” where hypoxia takes its toll. The author claimed a wealthy climber failed to help a downed climber and even stole his oxygen.

The story touches on the “super-injunction” where a book, its contents, and even the existence of the injunction is taboo. The court excludes evidence from another book because a super-injunction was issued.

And they overcome the super-injunction through the power of Twitter. This is exactly how the super-secretive proceedings are being circumvented in Britain.

One of the arguments made is the book is a warning to future climbers. They say that a book that is a warning to readers has a qualified privilege applied to it, meaning the law allows it. I’m not sure that’s correct. There’s been a whole brouhaha over scientists who are charged with libel for writing about health hazards. Even an objection to a government application based on health reasons isn’t safe from the British libel laws.

Overall, though, The Good Wife did a fantastic job of exposing the travesty that is UK libel law and the need for reform.

Did you see the episode? I’d love to hear what you thought of it. And I’d love to hear from any experts on British libel laws on the issue of the qualified privilege for a warning. Does this exist? If so, why the heck are scientists getting hit with libel injunctions?



4 comments:

LeeAnneArt said...

Yes Donna I did, and I watched it with the particular enthusiasm of one experiencing Australia's version of British Libel Law. I've written my own post which the show and your post inspired. See http://leeanneart.blogspot.com/2012/01/burden-of-proof.html

The more embroiled we are in this quagmire of process which is intended to avoid the case ever being heard the more we admire the US system, which is democratic and based upon proper application of burden of proof.

Excellent blog and I'll read more of your writings which I am just now coming across.

best wishes,
Lee-Anne

LeeAnneArt said...

Ha! actually Donna I assumed it was Jan 2012 as this episode of the Good Wife has only just now aired here in Australia. A year out in my timing to comment for you your posting as I was a bit enthused by it, but it is all fresh for us here, in more ways than one. best,
Lee-Anne

Donna said...

Great post LeeAnne! Thanks for letting me know I inspired you.

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