Diary: Bad news for libel lawyers is good news for free speech

 

Two of the most notorious libel cases of modern times have involved defendants called Singh. Singh 1 was Simon Singh, an author and journalist who was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over an article that criticised what he described as bogus practices. After the case had dragged on for two years, three law lords warned that "this litigation has almost certainly had a chilling effect on public debate which might otherwise had assisted potential patients".

Singh 2 was Hardeep Singh, who wrote an article in The Sikh Times criticising followers of a man called His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh ji Maharaj, whom Singh described as a "cult leader". Though His Holiness, who lives in the Punjab, reputedly speaks no English and has never set foot in the UK, someone may have alerted him to London's reputation as the libel capital of the world. The case dragged on for three and a half years until it was thrown out in February 2011.

Next Wednesday, the Queen's Speech will set out the government's legislative programme for the coming year. There is a draft Defamation Bill, published over a year ago, which has solid political support, and which would aim to make litigation quicker and cheaper, which would discourage "libel tourism", under which wealthy foreigners choose London as their most favourable litigation location, and which would protect articles that appear in peer-reviewed scientific or academic journals.

The Bill will probably feature in the Queen's Speech. That could be bad news for libel lawyers, but good for free speech.

Flanders retreats from hasty tweet

In a delightful illustration of the perils of social media, Stephanie Flanders, the BBC's economic editor, tweeted in fury: "Just tried to vote. My polling station, in Hammersmith, had closed two hours early. Has anyone else had same problem?"

Minutes later, she tweeted in toe-curling embarrassment: "My democratic outrage is now in abeyance.

"Apparently all stations closed because, er, today isn't Thursday. Clearly I need an early night."

Unlikely defenders of Cornish pasties

In the 19th century, thousands of Cornish miners headed across the water to Michigan to work in the copper mines, and introduced America to the Cornish pasty.

Now Camborne, in Cornwall, has received visitors from Calumet, in Michigan, bearing a petition with 500 signatures against George Osborne's decision to impose VAT on pasties.

Where does the buck stop?

Nottingham's voters were among those being called upon yesterday to decide whether they want a directly elected mayor, with Nottingham East's Labour MP, Chris Leslie, foremost among those advocating a No vote.

Local Yes campaigners have meanwhile dug up an old pamphlet issued by the think tank IPPR, arguing the case in favour of directly elected mayors, because "with a mayor the public knows who is in charge and where the buck stops". This has provoked some interest locally, because the pamphlet's co-author is the self same Chris Leslie.

Don't mention PM Perceval

A week today will be the 200th anniversary of the death of Spencer Perceval, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated. He was shot dead in the lobby of the Commons by a half-demented businessman who had been petitioning the government to help him get redress for the five years he had spent under arrest in Russia after a business deal went wrong.

The junior Foreign Minister, Henry Bellingham, will doubtless have his phone clogged up with messages inviting him into broadcasting studios to comment on the event. Whether he will want to is another matter. Henry Bellingham, the law-abiding Tory minister, is distantly related to John Bellingham, who was hanged for Perceval's murder. This is not something of which the Bellingham family is especially proud. Oddly, there is no memorial to Perceval anywhere in Parliament, though he was a renowned campaigner against the slave trade and the trafficking of women. Nor do the authorities plan one.

They say there is a monument to him in Westminster Abbey, and that is enough.

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