In Your Face

In Your Face
Thought provoking opinions on topical issues.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

Britain’s Libel Laws, Welcome to “Lah-Lah Land”

This week has been remarkable, even by British standards, for showing how unrealistic our laws relating to libel wrt what may (or may not) be published in the press are.

It has been widely known within the journalistic community, royal family and certain other areas of “the establishment” that there has been a story circulating for over a year; concerning an alleged incident (of a compromising nature), between a senior royal and another individual.

Matters came to a head when a British Sunday newspaper was issued with a “gagging order”, raised by a former royal servant, preventing it from printing a story concerning the allegations; made by another former royal servant, relating to the above.

This was followed by an extraordinary statement issued by Prince Charles The Prince of Wales, on Thursday, denying that he had been involved in any sexual incident. Note this was despite the fact that the name of the senior royal, or the nature of the compromising incident, had not been published.

Needless to say this gave the story wings. I think it fair to say that the majority of the British people had been unaware of the allegations, or hint of allegations, before this; now of course they are fully aware. Human nature being what it is, many in Britain are now very interested to know precisely what the allegations are; especially since the British people are not allowed to be told by their own “free press”. Forbidden fruit can be very appealing!

At the time of writing the press and TV can, and are, reporting the statement by Prince Charles; and the fact that there are unspecified allegations by an unnamed former servant, concerning a senior member of the royal family. However, each report is tagged with the bye-line; that owing to the libel laws they cannot name the parties involved, or discuss the precise nature of the allegations.

It may be that this method for hushing up a story could have worked over 100 years ago; before the advent of telephones, TV and the internet. However, in the first decade of the 21st Century this approach is simply risible. The British are told by their “free press” that the story (with the details that the British are not allowed to know) is being widely reported in the foreign media and, of course, on the internet. There has now been an unseemly scramble by many British citizens to surf the net; in order to read the story, about their royal family, which they have been denied access to in their “democracy”.

In the thirties a very similar situation arose with regard to the affair between Mrs Wallace Simpson and the future Edward VIII. The British press knew of the story, but could not report it owing to the libel laws. However, the American press reported it freely; British citizens who travelled to America at that time were surprised to read about something that they had no inkling of. They, naturally, brought copies of the papers back to Britain; and shared the story with their friends. Eventually the story broke in Britain, and the resulting abdication crisis caused a change of King (and history) before he was crowned.

I would have thought that the lesson learnt, some seventy years ago (before TV and the internet), should have been taken on board by the legislative authorities by now. However, it has clearly not been taken on board. We wait for the inevitable leak and consequent media frenzy; which will have been stoked up by the gagging order.

The libel laws in Britain belong to a bygone age; those that seek to maintain them, and use them in this manner, truly live in “lah-lah land”.

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