Chris McGrath v. Vaughan Jones: An Unpleasant Peek Into U.K. Libel Law

I'll be the first to admit: sometimes we are more than a little mean to the United Kingdom here at Popehat. But we kid because we love. The language, the history, the culture, the television, the fond memories of student life spent shivering on cobbled streets after the bars closed ludicrously early, waiting for a kebab van so that we could eat some gray meat carved off of a questionable shapeless haunch — we love it all.

But we don't love the U.K.'s approach to libel, and we applaud the recent rumblings of reform there. Though the SPEECH Act helps to protect Americans from the worst excesses of the U.K.'s plaintiff-biased and libel-tourist-destination system, that's cold comfort to Brits who get sued.

Consider the case of Vaughan Jones, a young blogger sued for leaving negative reviews of a book. I learned of Mr. Jones when he made some kind comments in the course of discussing legal threats from bumptious fake lawyer Marc Stephens. From there, I found and read John's fascinating and chilling blog about being a libel defendant in the U.K.

U.K. law limits what Jones can say about his own case. But he has a good summary of links to media coverage, including this one. The case concerns reviews Mr. Jones left on Amazon — now deleted — regarding Chris McGrath's book The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need To Know. McGrath has also sued Amazon itself over these negative reviews, and has sued Richard Dawkins and the Dawkins Foundation for their commentary. As you know, we have a low opinion of people who sue over negative book reviews. They are loathsome.

Apparently a decision is expected soon based upon the initial hearings. I look forward to reading it. Meanwhile, consider Jones' discussion of proposed reforms to U.K. libel law. Also consider his description of proceedings, some of which seem very odd to our tastes.

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  1. Martin says

    "some of which seem very odd to our tastes. "
    What are "our" tastes? Mine are probably very different from yours.

  2. says

    Thanks for writing about this. My blog was more thorough some time ago but I took a lot of the content down a month or so before the hearing. Some of it had served a purpose and I managed to raise a lot of support and a little money for defending the claim.

    People like Hardeep Singh (libel defendant in a religious case), Simon Singh (mathmetician and BCA libel defendant) , David Allen Green (New Statesman journalist & Jack of Kent blog), Gareth Winchester (DNotice), Paul Tilley and the Ministry of Truth have been brilliant in supporting me.

    So thanks to you for also throwing your hat into the ring. Much obliged.

  3. Kevin Smith says

    Obviously the absurd libel actions taken out against Vaughan and some of the other individuals mentioned above are distressing and time consuming. But I have been saying for a little while now – whilst the laws here have not yet been changed, the judiciary nowadays are generally (but not always) applying these laws more favourably to defendants. I think I saw some figures that in 2010 out of 20 cases, 17 were won by defendants.

    The more discretionary and common sense approach by the judiciary I believe is being shaped by the Libel Reform Campaign, the defendants who have bravely chosen to fight and judges concerned at the waste of their time and resources being taken up with trivia.

    One thing I would say – some of the cases have been immensely entertaining and enjoyable to read. I have my own little collection of absurd libel cases. Thankfully, in pretty much all common sense has prevailed in the end.

    Here try this one for starters – you could not make it up!

    And this one:

  4. Bored Lawyer says

    In the U.S., one of the most basic rules of libel law is that only facts can be libelous, not opinions. Does UK law not recognize the distinction? How can one possibly be held liable for opinion — what determines whether something is a "false" opinion?

    (This is not to say that you could not slip in false statements of fact into a review. "John Doe, the well-known plagiarist and convicted child molester, just published the most awful piece of literature . . ." The libel there is in the false facts, not the opinion.)

  5. markm says

    Bored: Follow the "description of proceedings" link; McGrath (the plaintiff) alleged at least 3 defamatory statements of fact, in brief:

    1) Jones' review said that McGrath created a company to publish his book. (I've no idea why that would be defamatory, even if it were untrue.)

    2) Jones said that McGraw used three Amazon accounts under false names to write reviews of his own book.

    3) Jones called McGraw a "creationist".

    Jones is moving to strike(out) 1 and 2 on the grounds that McGraw conceded they were true, and says McGraw is seeking to void the case and start over with an amended complaint – and thereby avoid paying the costs so far. (This is the one way the Brit system is superior – harassment lawsuits are less likely, since if the defendant fights the case through and wins, he will be awarded his costs. Not that this will stop every self-deluded plaintiff.)

    I suspect a US court would toss #3 as opinion rather than a statement of fact, but in GB it's not so clear. Jones apparently is arguing that "creationist" is a religious term and thereby outside the court's ken.

  6. Bored Lawyer says

    Markin: If that is the case, I don't see what is the big outrage about the defamation being included in a book review. If something is really defamatory, then the fact that it is next to your opinion about someone's book seems a dodge to me. As I said, if you write a review that starts "John Doe, the well-known plagiarist and convicted child molester, just published the most awful piece of literature . . ." you don't get a pass on the plagiarist and child molestor parts just because the same sentence contains your privileged opinion on the quality of the John Doe's literary product.

    Turning to the three allegations, No. 1 (set up a company) I agree is factual but hardly defamatory. No. 2 (used false accounts to write own laudatory reviews) is defamatory — that would clearly be actionable under U.S. law. No. 3 is debatable — it seems to mean that the person has advocated or believes in Creationism, which many consider bunk science. Not clear to me that a U.S. court would dismiss that so easily. (Whether it's defamatory might depend on the circles you travel in, though. If you are a professor of biology at Harvard it probably is. If you are a Baptist minister in Alabama, it probably isn't.)

  7. Chris Nike says

    I suspect that regardless of the result of the initial application when it comes out, Mr Jones can look forward to having a good old chuckle when tellling the tale of this ridiculous scenario to his future grandchildren. I would imagine they would be in tears of laughter to learn that this nonsense ever got to the highest court in the land.

    By the way I thought Ian Hislop put in a good, down to earth performance yesterday. Just shows all that is needed to slap down an opponent is common sense, intelligence, perspective – and preferably humour.

    Good luck with it.