Libel and the left

by Chris Bertram on October 15, 2003

An email this morning brings a copy of a begging letter from Guardian columnist Paul Foot, on behalf of his Socialist Workers Party (British version) comrades Lindsey German and Alex Callinicos. (Full text below). The letter arises because said “comrades” accused Quintin Hoare and Branka Magas, long-time scholars of the Balkans and, as it happens, friends of mine, of being apologists for the government of Holocaust revisionist Franjo Tujdman. Not unreasonably, given that the accusation was wholly false and a grave libel disseminated by the several thousand sellers of the SWP’s literature, Hoare and Magas sought the advice of m’learned friends. German and Callinicos have had to back down and apologise for thus damaging their reputation (apology here ). Foot’s letter appeals to the convention that disputes on the left should not be taken to the lawyers (a very convenient convention for a an influential and powerful organization which resorts to tabloid-style smears against its opponents). He also claims that “The publisher, Lindsey German and Alex Callinicos cannot possibly afford these sums.” Since the sum involved is about £13,000 and Foot and Callinicos at least are reasonably affluent, this claim is plainly untrue.

The text of Foot’s email:

This is an appeal to all socialists and free thinkers to contribute to the enormous costs of a case brought against socialists by socialists. In August last year, the editor of Socialist Review, Lindsey German, and Bookmarks Publications, the socialist publisher, got a letter from the well known libel lawyers Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners on behalf of their clients Quintin Hoare and Branca Magas.
The letter complained about an article written in 1993 by Alex Callinicos (who also got a letter) and included in the book The Balkans, Nationalism and Imperialism, published in 1999 by Bookmarks. The details of the complaint were spelled out in a statement read in open court recently. Hoare and Magas complained that one passage in the article meant they were both
‘apologists’ for Franjo Tudjman and his regime in Croatia.
This letter is not concerned with the allegations in the original publication. It has been a long tradition in the labour movement that arguments between socialists should be conducted openly and should not, except in extreme circumstances, be tested in the courts by the libel laws.
The reason for this tradition is simple. As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford. This history of this case vindicates that tradition. Quintin Hoare and Branca Magas are well known in British left wing circles. From the outset Bookmarks Publications and Lindsey German made no attempt to justify their article. They sought to settle the matter as soon and as
cheaply as possible.
After much correspondence they agreed to make a statement in open court apologising for the article and agreeing to pay each of the plaintiffs £1,500. Carter-Ruck’s bill for these proceedings is likely to be over £10,000.
This means that the total bill for bringing the action and pursuing it, though it was undefended, is more than three times the payment made to the two people who made the complaint. And this for an item in a book whose total sale at Bookmarks and other bookshops in the year before the
complaint was less than 50!
At no stage did Mr Hoare or Ms Magas approach Bookmarks Publications without their lawyers. They went straight to their lawyers, at no expense to themselves, since Carter-Ruck were operating on a “no win, no fee” basis.
Bookmarks Publications is a small left wing publisher with very few funds, all of which go into developing new publications. The publisher, Lindsey German and Alex Callinicos cannot possibly afford these sums. Hence this appeal to anyone in the socialist and labour movement who would like to express their disapproval of pursuing political arguments through the law courts.
Paul Foot

{ 18 comments }

1

Doug Muir 10.15.03 at 3:05 pm

I’m confused.

What exactly does he mean with that last sentence?

I mean, logically it should be what my fundraising friends call The Big Ask, the moment where the hand goes out and (one hopes) the person addressed reaches for purse or wallet.

But it seems to, well, wuss out at the last moment. “Hence this appeal” — unclear pronoun referent. /What/ appeal? Do they want money? Or do they just want the readers to “express their disapproval”? — Say, by drumming Hoare and Magas out of the Party, or writing ill-tempered letters to the Guardian, or what have you.

I’m not sure if this is unclear because I lack the context, or because it /is/ unclear. Anybody?

Doug M.

2

dsquared 10.15.03 at 3:08 pm

For anyone who might be inclined to wonder what the fuss was about (me for instance), here’s what Branka Magas actually said about Tudjman (Hoare, I can find nothing). It’s certainly not an apologia; it has slightly more historical context and sensible analysis in it than someone who was baying for a Forthright Condemnation Of This Unremittingly Terrible Man might want to see, but to call Magas an apologist looks clearly libellous to me on the basis of this.

I actually had a certain amount of sympathy for the Serbian Republic (though not the Bosnian Serbs), but the SWP and the Living Marxism crowd were just f’kng pathological about it; they seemed to literally believe themselves to still be fighting the Titoist cause in the Second World War.

3

Doug Muir 10.15.03 at 3:11 pm

Whoops, my bad. Went back and read it again, and the first sentence does say “this is an appeal… to contribute.”

Mea culpa; all I can say in my defense is that there are five paragraphs and ~500 words between pronoun and referent.

Doug M.

4

dsquared 10.15.03 at 3:17 pm

I think it’s also possible that the actual email ended with some bank details that Chris has snipped off … though shurely you should be supporting this appeal, Chris, as it increases the chance that your mates will get their money?

5

Doug Muir 10.15.03 at 3:26 pm

A further thought. Even at City Lawyer rates, it takes some time to run up a $16,000 legal bill.
If Bookmark and Callinicos had really sought “from the outset” to settle the matter “as soon and as cheaply as possible”, then it could have been settled well before legal fees had reached that level.

Doug M. — passed the Bar exams for Illinois, Oregon, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas

6

Doug Muir 10.15.03 at 3:32 pm

Actually, if Chris supports the tradition of “no libel suits on the left”, then he /shouldn’t/ contribute — and neither should anyone else.

If the plaintiffs recover, then they reap a financial reward despite breaking the taboo. Whereas if B & C go bankrupt, and plaintiffs recover nothing, then future would-be plaintiffs are deterred.

A more effective response would be to give nothing, but ostracize and (within the law) harass the plaintiffs — drum them out of the party, write unpleasant letters to the _Guardian_, what have you.

It occurs to me that this e-mail may be an invitation to just this sort of behaviour. Which might explain my initial confusion.

Doug M.

7

Chris 10.15.03 at 3:54 pm

On some points raised above:

I don’t support the no libel on the left line advocated by Foot, though, obviously, people should use their judgement sensibly and the libel laws are imperfect. The SWP are bullies and deserve what they get.

Doug M is probalby correct in thinking that costs could have been lower if the defendants had handled things more promptly.

There were some details of where to send money at the end of the email. But I’m not fundraising for them – those desperate to contribute and phone them up or use google (but I wouldn’t bother as they have plenty of resources).

The purpose of Foot’s letter is less about raising funds than about saying nasty things about people who have stood up to the SWP.

8

Lee Bryant 10.15.03 at 3:56 pm

With any luck, the loss of £13k might make these SWPers pause for thought the next time they get their position on an international issue so very, very wrong.

Branka and Quintin have been stalwarts of the anti-fascist pro-Bosnian movement around the world, and they continue to produce some great analysis for the Bosnian Institute (www.bosnia.org.uk) that outdated pscyhosclerotics like Callinicos would do well to read. By coincidence, the most recent Institute meeting was an update on the situation in Prijedor a decade on from the genocide in that region. Some of us will never forgive the left (with some honourable exceptions) for its singular failure to deal with these events (SWP) and in some cases to actively deny they were taking place (LM/RCP).

For those of us who were directly involved, the fact that such people literally couldn’t identify an anti-fascist struggle even on their doorstep means they are irrelevant to internationalism.

I shared a platform with Callinicos at their annual shindig at Ally Pally in ’94 or ’95 for a Bosnia discussion. I was presumably supposed to say “boo hoo, please help us” whilst big daddy Alex stepped in with his socialist analysis to explain that intervention is wrong. Instead I just pointed out that the arms embargo was an act of imperialist intervention and all the Bosnians wanted was freedom to fight alongside their friends to defeat Serbian fascism. This trashed his poition in an instant, which rather confused the audience, but he didn’t care. Our struggle at that time was just a peg on which to hang his own dogma.

£13k for a lesson in international affairs is not a high price to pay, even if some of it goes to a libel lawyer ;-)

9

dsquared 10.15.03 at 4:02 pm

Some of us will never forgive the left (with some honourable exceptions) for its singular failure to deal with these events (SWP) and in some cases to actively deny they were taking place (LM/RCP).

While I appreciate your position, it’s a bit unfair to talk about “honourable exceptions” on the British Left. The SWP and RCP were the exceptions and lost almost all their remaining friends by taking their weirdo stance.

10

Lee Bryant 10.15.03 at 4:45 pm

You probably know better than me, so I will defer to your optimistic interpretation. I only know of one small group who were very active as Workers Aid for Bosnia – aside from that we rarely came across supportive leftist orgs, but that may be just circumstantial.

11

jdsm 10.15.03 at 5:14 pm

It seems odd to hear this “we on the left don’t go to lawyers” argument from the left. It sounds like the military where everything has to be handled internally because civilians have no understanding of justice.

It’s not very pleasant to hear the left using such an “us against them” phrase, as if the socialist workers are better able to dispense true justice than the law courts.

Is it also a covention on the left that you don’t print trash? If so, surely one good turn deserves another.

12

James Surowiecki 10.15.03 at 6:00 pm

The most interesting part of this is Foot’s explanation for why socialists frown on getting the law involved:

“As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford.”

This sounds weirdly Coase-ian for someone on the left. Effectively, Foot’s arguing that Hoare and Magas should pay — by not recovering the cost of the utility they lost by being libeled — Callinicos and German to get them to stop committing libel.

“Yes, the factory I own did pollute the river, but if you bring me to court, the transaction costs to me will be greater than the costs of your lost utility. So I’ll promise to stop and we’ll just call it even.”

13

Chris Young 10.15.03 at 6:11 pm

I’m a bit strapped cos it’s the wrong end of the month, but if Branka and Quintin could use a tenner to tide them through till they get their money I’d be happy to ante up.

14

Lee Bryant 10.15.03 at 6:38 pm

You could always donate it to the Bosnian Institute ;-)

15

Doug Muir 10.15.03 at 7:48 pm

“For those of us who were directly involved, the fact that such people literally couldn’t identify an anti-fascist struggle even on their doorstep means they are irrelevant to internationalism.”

I couldn’t agree more. Well spoken, er, commented, Lee.

Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo managed to confuse hell out of both right and left. The right seemed to suffer less from it — possibly because they had a working default response to fall back on (“a whiff of grapeshot will set the wogs straight”) and partly because, well, a lack of intellectual coherence on foreign policy issues has not kept the European right awake nights for a while now.

But the European left… oh, my. Intellectual and philosophical contortions that were painful to watch. Still going on; it’s not that long since I read in the _Guardian_ that Milosevic was being persecuted because he was, you know, a socialist. Daft? Hell, sweet reason compared to some of the stuff that was said and printed about Bosnia. In retrospect, this libel suit comes as no surprise. And if nations or peoples could sue for defamation, well, dunning e-mails for Socialist Workers would be running neck-and-neck with herbal viagra in the battle for your in-box space.

Doug M.

16

Doug Muir 10.15.03 at 8:01 pm

Workers Aid does indeed seem to have done some real good in Bosnia. I wasn’t there during the shooting, but I heard nothing but good about them afterwards.

But otherwise… well, my experience matches Lee’s. I was in the former Yugoslavia for two years and a bit. I didn’t see any other leftist organization making itself useful, and I don’t recall hearing about any either.

— Well, not unless you count the National Democratic Institution, which is the international NGO spun off from the US Democratic Party. NDI’s Belgrade office was doing some good stuff. Milosevic and Kostunica both hated them, which is IMO a very good sign. But I suspect that most of the Crooked Timber crew would have some difficulty identifying any American party to the right of Ralph Nader as “leftist”, so maybe they don’t count.

Anyhow. I freely grant the possibility that the Socialist Workers Party of Britain may have done some wonderful things in Yugoslavia. I just never saw or heard of any, is all.

Doug M.

17

Jason McCullough 10.16.03 at 12:17 am

“The most interesting part of this is Foot’s explanation for why socialists frown on getting the law involved.”

I’d go with “socialists tend to have a history of extremely unfair treatment by the legal system.”

18

bobbie 10.20.03 at 12:30 pm

erm, sorry about the 206000000 trackbacks. some kind of technical problem with my site. ARGH!

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