Invasion of the libel tourists

US celebrities are being actively courted by media lawyers to take advantage of Britain's tougher libel laws and bring their cases to London

Robert Verkaik
Thursday 21 August 2008 00:00

It is often said that tales of adultery and spiteful tittle-tattle are the price of celebrity in the Land of the Free.

But that was before the UK declared itself open for libel tourism, attracting Hollywood A-listers to the Royal Courts of Justice for a spot of English justice.

Film stars and pop idols claiming their reputations have been tarnished by the US tabloids have decided that London is the place to sue their antagonists.

Leading the charge for compensation are the actress Jenifer Lopez and the troubled pop singer Britney Spears who have been wooed by UK libel lawyers promising them hefty payouts in the courts of London, Belfast and Dublin.

Other libel-law anglophiles include the US film producer Steve Bing and The film star Harrison Ford.

Yesterday their lawyer, the Belfast solicitor Paul Tweed, told The Independent that more performers, as well as a number of Russian oligarchs, were preparing to join them.

This onslaught of international legal action, which has helped establish London as the libel capital of the world, has raised concerns, from the UN and other parties, about the chilling effect of such actions on the freedoms of the press.

Those who represent celebrity clients see nothing wrong with offering a true freedom of choice to those who wish to protect their reputations and privacy.

Yesterday Mr Tweed was invited to speak to an audience of Hollywood lawyers in Beverly Hills who are keen to use UK defamation law to defeat the American press, which they claim has had a virtual free run at making huge profits out of tormenting celebrities.

In a speech which will be incendiary to America's fourth estate, Mr Tweed offered to silence the tabloids by sidestepping US laws and issuing proceedings in the UK instead.

"One of the most effective strategies we have developed during the course of the past two or three years in terms of obtaining a speedy and satisfactory resolution for US plaintiffs has been the threat or implementation of multi-jurisdictional proceedings," he said.

More celebrities were simply unwilling to run away and hide every time a newspaper ran a front page exposé on their private life. That was particularly so in the UK where the media industry was estimated to be worth £7bn.

"For a European however, the notion that there should be no safety net in place, whereby the veracity of what is published as fact in the public forum can be monitored, is very difficult to contemplate," suggested Mr Tweed.

The surge began in 2000, when the House of Lords gave the Russian émigré Boris Berezovsky permission to sue Forbes after the US magazine wrongly characterised him as a brutal thug and crook. The House of Lords ruled 3:2 that Forbes was widely available on the internet and Mr Berezovsky had sufficient business interests in Britain to have been damaged here.

It was followed by a claim brought by the film director Roman Polanski in the Royal Courts of Justice, who won libel damages from the US magazine Vanity Fair which falsely claimed he had seduced a model days after his wife had been murdered. The libel defeat in 2005 is estimated to have cost the magazine's publisher, Conde Nast, £1.5m.

In 2003, Friends star Jennifer Aniston claimed a breach of privacy and won £40,000 in damages from the Daily Sport after it published photographs of her topless and in swimwear.

This latest rush to UK law has been fuelled by UK defamation lawyers willing to explain to potential clients that the UK's celebrity-friendly libel laws offer bigger compensation payouts and tougher obstacles to newspapers who want to stand by their claims.

Mr Tweed, a senior partner of the law firm Johnsons, said the expansion of the internet had increased the potential for damage to reputations.

Unsurprisingly, the celebrity penchant for using British courts to win libel claims has gone down badly in the United States. In the State of New York, the legislature has introduced new laws to counter so-called libel tourism.

Last week, the United Nations delivered its own verdict on libel tourism, condemning the practice for its backdoor suppression of free speech.

The UN's influential committee on human rights concluded that UK defamation laws "served to discourage critical media reporting on matters of serious public interest, adversely affecting the ability of scholars and journalists to publish their work."

It pointed to the case of an American researcher, Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld, who was sued in London by a Saudi businessman and his two sons over a book which was not published in the UK, although 23 copies were sold into the country via the internet, and one chapter was available on the web.

It was that case which prompted New York State to pass legislation to protect writers and publishers working there from the enforcement of defamation judgments in other courts, unless the New York courts were satisfied that the foreign courts accorded the same protection for freedom of speech as New York and US federal law. The US federal legislature is considering enacting similar legislation.

The US constitution to enshrines the protection of free speech. Publishers have used it to defend libel claims in the courts. The US public-figure defence means that most claimants in the US must prove that the media acted maliciously if they want to win their case.

"In the past, anyone who could be classified as a public figure in the US has simply had to... ignore these false and outrageous allegations being thrown at them in the tabloids," Mr Tweed said.

In Britain, the public-figure defence is restricted to those whose functions are performed in the public interest. The onus is on the media to prove the truth of the allegation and the claimant does not need to show that the defendant acted out of malice.

It means that a trip to the libel courts can prove a very profitable experience for the celebrity and politicians alike.

"With the ever-increasing expansion of internet publication and with US magazines such as the National Enquirer now distributing UK/Irish editions, I am being consulted more and more by internationally famous stars who would otherwise have difficulty in seeking vindication of their reputations in the US, where the libel laws are geared much more in favour of the press," Mr Tweed said.

Most of those claims tend to be brought against the US tabloid press. When the National Enquirer suggested Britney Spears's marriage was in trouble, she chose to sue in Belfast. The case ended with the tabloid making a public apology. Jennifer Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony, are also suing the publication and seeking "substantial damages" for a story that alleged they were linked to a drug scandal. The United Nations says the UK Government should re-examine the technical doctrines of libel law – and should consider introducing a "so-called 'public figure" exception" which would require a would-be claimant in a libel case to prove actual malice by a publisher or author before he or she could proceed.

It would apply in cases "concerning reporting on public officials and prominent public figures". The defence would be similar to the Sullivan defence in the United States, under which a public figure who wishes to sue for libel can only do so if he or she can demonstrate malice by the potential defendant, or recklessness or indifference as to the truth of the statement published, and can show that the statement is false.

The committee also calls for the no-win, no-fees regime to be changed to limit the requirement that losing defendants should reimburse the successful claimant's costs and the "success fee" claimed by his or her lawyers.

In some cases "success fees" charged by winning lawyers in defamation cases have reached 100 per cent – an effective doubling of normal fees which can lead to charges of up to £900 an hour.

Britney Spears

When The National Enquirer recently suggested Britney Spears' marriage was in trouble she chose to sue in Belfast rather than the US. The case ended with the US tabloid making a public apology.

Harrison Ford

The Indiana Jones actor has consulted Belfast-based solicitor Paul Tweed over claims in United States newspapers relating to the filming of his latest outing as the swashbuckling archaeologist in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Jennifer Lopez

Actress Jennifer Lopez and her husband Marc Anthony are also suing The National Enquirer magazine in the UK for libel and seeking "substantial damages" after a story alleged they were linked to a drug scandal.

Roman Polanski

The film director appeared by videolink at the Royal Courts of Justice to win libel damages from Vanity Fair. The magazine falsely claimed he had seduced a model days after his wife was murdered. The libel defeat cost it £1.5m.

Boris Berezovsky

Boris Berezovsky was given permission by the House of Lords to sue Forbes after the US magazine wrongly characterised him as a thug and crook. The Lords found that as the story was on the internet, his UK business interests had been damaged.

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