Man faces libel allegations over Amazon book review


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The Independent Online

A father of three from the West Midlands is set to appear in the High Court tomorrow to defend himself against libel allegations over a book review he wrote on Amazon’s website last year.

Vaughan Jones, 28, from Nuneaton, cannot afford representation and is having to defend himself alongside barristers acting on behalf of internet giant Amazon and Richard Dawkins who are also named as co-defendants.

The case is being brought by Chris McGrath, an online entrepreneur from Milton Keynes who wrote and self-published a little known book entitled “The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know”. He is acting as a litigant in person in a two day hearing which will decide whether there is a case to answer.

Libel reform campaigners have expressed concern that the hearing is another example of how Britain’s defamation laws disproportionately favour claimants, closing down debate particularly among individuals and organisations who cannot afford costly legal battles. The Government is currently in the process of reforming Britain’s libel laws which have been described as some of the most restrictive in the western world.

John Kampfner, the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship, one of the founding partners of the Libel Reform Campaign, said: “That a family man from Nuneaton can face a potentially ruinous libel action for a book review on Amazon shows how archaic and expensive our libel law is. We’re pushing the government to commit to a bill in the next Queen’s speech so that these chilling laws are reformed to protect freedom of expression.”

Mr McGrath’s book, which was initially published anonymously under the pseudonym “Scrooby”, first came to the attention of Mr Jones in September 2010 when multiple links to the book began appearing under reviews for “The Grand Design”, a popular science book by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow which argued that God is not necessary to explain the origins of the universe.

The links advertised Mr McGrath’s book as an alternative argument that could explain the existence of God. During September and October 2010 Mr Jones wrote a series of uncomplimentary reviews of “The Attempted Murder of God” and outed Mr McGrath as the author. 

The reviews prompted Mr McGrath to claim that his book was in fact a parody of the debate between scientists and theists over the existence of God rather than a scientific proof for God’s existence. The Richard Dawkins Foundation also published an article by Mr Jones on its website.

The exact details of those reviews and the article are not known as they were taken down once legal proceedings began. But they prompted Mr McGrath to sue Mr Jones, Mr Dawkins, his eponymous foundation and Amazon.

The Independent contacted Mr Jones earlier this week. He declined to comment on the specifics of the case. "I've been advised not to say anything until after the court hearing,” he said. “Needless to say this has been a very stressful time."

Mr McGrath also declined to discuss the case with The Independent but he did send a statement in which he described his decision to link his book under reviews of “The Grand Design” as “satirical counter argument” and “marketing parody”.

He added: “Whatever the merits of the books, [my] company, of the wider social satire, or of Christopher McGrath's belief in God, a libellous attack followed (wholly unrelated to Stephen Hawking) at and at, which is the subject of the current claim at the High Court.”

Both Amazon and Richard Dawkins declined to comment.