GENTECH archive


Pulping the Ecologist for Monsanto criticism

                          Free speech comes dear 
        Libel laws mean no one messes with big, litigious companies
                             By George Monbiot
Guardian (London)                          Thursday October 8, 1998
     You can't blame the printers of the Ecologist magazine for getting
   cold feet. They knew that, expensive as the decision to pulp October's
    edition would be, it was far cheaper than being sued by the company
     the magazine criticised. Monsanto is becoming the new McDonald's,
   seemingly using civil law to intimidate its critics. Just three weeks
   ago, it obtained an injunction against the Genetix Snowball movement.
    If anyone, anywhere, damages Monsanto's crops, the movement's press
     officer can be sued for incitement. Small printers don't mess with
                        big, litigious corporations.
    Britain's libel laws, the most draconian in the world, establish the
     limits within which public discussion can take place. Only public
   bodies, the poor and the powerless can be fearlessly exposed. The rich
   and powerful must, by law, be handled with the utmost circumspection.
   Tuesday's Today programme on Radio 4 treated us to a demonstration of
    precisely what this means. Sir Clive Thompson, the head of the CBI,
    was interviewed about Britain's trade mission to China. He was asked
    whether he felt that investing in China raised any ethical problems.
       Without a hint of irony he snapped, "CBI members always trade
                          ethically, as you know."
     Had a politician made such an asinine claim, he would have faced a
   barrage of hostile challenges, but the interviewer passed meekly on to
     the next question. To have asked about Shell's treatment of tribal
       people in Nigeria, about BP's connections with the military in
    Colombia, or, for that matter, about the British firms using forced
    labour in China would have been to court disaster. A mere equivocal
       inference would have enabled the corporations to sue the Today
      The next item concerned the Birmingham northern relief road. The
   reporter blithely repeated a police allegation that protesters against
    the road have booby-trapped houses they have occupied. It's a charge
   made again and again by a force which takes its propaganda seriously,
    and proved again and again to be untrue. But the protesters are not
    incorporated and possess no money: they can't sue for libel, so, in
     the absence of a cheap and equitable means of redress, they can be
                          maligned with impunity.
   The libel laws are as effective a barrier to free speech in Britain as
         government intervention is in Indonesia. And, in the best
    authoritarian tradition, they rely for their routine observance not
    upon enforcement, but upon self-censorship. Surrounded by the truths
      that dare not speak their names, we weave the public life of the
                     nation into a single seamless lie.
   It's partly because of the libel laws that investigative journalism is
   all but dead in Britain. On the same day last week that the Ecologist
    learnt that its issue had been pulped, the Police Federation won its
    suit against World in Action, forcing Granada TV to pay 1.5 million
                           in costs and damages.
     It's the second time the programme has been successfully sued this
    year. In March, Marks & Spencer went to court over allegations about
    child labour in the Moroccan factories making its clothes. After the
    case, its chief executive claimed "we have been vindicated . . . our
    reputation has been restored". In truth, Marks & Spencer won because
     World in Action had inferred wrongly that M&S knew about the child
            labour, not because no child labour was being used.
     But these suits effectively spell the end of the series, which was
   already struggling against a corporate television culture which cannot
      see the point of investigative journalism. It will, it seems, be
   replaced by a current-affairs programme hosted by Trevor McDonald and
    likely to be even less threatening to big business than News at Ten.
     The libel laws are unfair in every particular. The burden of proof
   rests on the defendants, while the information they require rests with
     the plaintiffs. However poor the defendants might be, they are not
   entitled to legal aid. Everyone in the publication chain can be sued:
    the author, the editor, the publisher, the printer, the distributor,
        the newsagents, even the libraries which stock the offending
    publications. So everyone works to ensure that the rich and powerful
               couldn't possibly be harmed by their material.
    The courts accept that government bodies shouldn't be allowed to sue
      for libel, because that would have devastating consequences for
     freedom of speech. In America, the judiciary has ensured that big
   business is subject to the same restrictions, as its impact on public
    life is just as profound as the government's. Until we do the same,
    free speech will remain one of Britain's most expensive commodities.
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