"A misconceived libel action," wrote legal eagle Jack of Kent last year, "can be an incredible financial and reputational disaster of the very first order. It can be the maddest, saddest decision any person ever makes."
I wonder if that rule applies to the proceedings that Ed Husain's Quilliam Foundation has launched against Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan. Murray, who has become a prolific blogger and maverick Parliamentary candidate since falling out with the Foreign Office over the flexible attitudes of the American and British governments towards human rights abuses in Uzbekistan, wrote last week about QF's apparent failure to publish its accounts (as it is legally obliged to do). In a snarky aside, he muttered about the organisation's "cosseted" directors receiving "a great deal of public money". The post concluded,
"How do you feel about grants of public money being given to a private company whose address is a PO Box and which does not have accounts?"
He has since received a letter (pdf) from solicitors Clarke Willmott demanding that he take down the post, supply details of how many people have viewed it, apologise unreservedly and pay compensation. The claims and insinuations in the post, the letter maintained, constituted "very grave libels" and there was "absolutely no truth whatsoever " in any of them.
Quite why the action is being launched now isn't clear. This isn't the first time Murray has been rude about QF and its taxpayer-supported leaders. Reviewing Ed Husain's journey from radical Islamism to media success and respectability as one of Britain's most influential Muslim "moderates", Murray wrote in April that "both the original fanaticism and the high profile and lucrative betrayal are evidence of a sociopathic character". QF itself, he alleged, was "the branch of New Labour tasked with securing the Muslim vote and reducing British Muslim dissatisfaction with New Labour over the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan."
The public subsidy given to QF - which, among other things, pays generous salaries (believed to be in the region of £85,000) to Ed Husain and his colleage Majid Nawaz - has also been the subject of press comment. The Times reported at the beginning of this year that the organisation had received around a million pounds from the government - and was renting "expensively furnished" offices at "one of central London's most prestigious addresses." It quoted Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, who wondered "what has been achieved with this considerable sum of public money", while "one government minister said that the size of the grant was outrageous, adding that Britain had become home to an 'ex-Islamist industry'."
Another, unrelated Murray - Douglas Murray of the Centre for Social Cohesion - has also been highly critical of the Quilliam Foundation recently. Writing in response to the news that Husain had described mass surveillance of British Muslims as "good and right", Murray commented that Ed's opinions were "quite appallingly illiberal" and went "beyond anything that anyone who believes in liberal democracy could extol". It was "increasingly clear", thought Murray, that QF was part of the problem and not the solution. Furthermore,
The nature of QF and its funding arrangements ought to be a source of concern to all British taxpayers, no matter what their political or religious opinions, and finally be brought out in the open. I know very well how these people work because I used to employ some of them. Around the time Ed Husain came to public notice, I recruited him to work with me (through Civitas, the organisation that originally hosted the Centre for Social Cohesion). .... This gave him the time and financial freedom to set up QF. But the increasing oddness of his opinions (particularly relating to my own freedom of speech) meant that eventually we parted ways. What is scandalous is that QF – set up to counter extremists such as their former colleagues in Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) – has done nothing substantial to challenge HT in the UK or radicalisation on UK campuses, the things it was actually set up for.
QF, Douglas Murray continued, "seems entirely unaware of the tenets of the society it is paid to extol." I've made a similar suggestion myself. Perhaps, he wondered, "QF's ex-fundamentalists feel we're all under the same risk of extremism as they once were." And he urged the Conservative party, to which QF has been "cosying up" to look more critically on an organisation that was "using public money to advocate increasingly totalitarian attitudes towards the general public and judging Muslims by their own early standards."
Husain has not so far sued Douglas Murray. Nor has he sued Melanie Phillips, who has drawn repeated attention to his evasions and increasingly erratic pronouncements on the Israel-Palestine question. Husain is, however, notoriously thin-skinned, some would say highly-strung. Phillips' comments led him to write that her "zealotry and ignorance frighten me. How did we produce a public commentator filled with such anger, venom and hatred?" He also described her as a conspiracy theorist and a ranter. The article produced a thread of (even by CiF standards) remarkable venom, during which a moderator - now revealed to be Alan Rusbridger's daughter - likened the Spectator columnist to "that character in Little Britain who is violently sick every time she hears the words 'black or gay.' Except for Melanie, the word would be 'Muslim.'" Phillips might have sued Husain herself, I suppose - instead she did the journalistically proper thing and fired back a blistering response.
Brett from Harry's Place - a blog that has consistently championed Ed Husain and his "think-tank" - wrote of his disappointment that "our friends" at QF sent for the lawyers, although he claimed Craig Murray was "mad as a hatter and sometimes quite nasty". (This is true: he recently accused Conservative Candidate and Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart of being an MI6 agent and "Old Etonian wanker".) "It is not nice threatening bloggers with letters from lawyers," wrote Brett - who should know, HP itself was threatened with legal action last year by Mohammed Sawalha of the British Muslim Initiative. "What’s more, it is generally unnecessary." Indeed.
But what of the case? Apart from the reference to the non-filing of accounts, there's nothing in the post that goes beyond the sort of knockabout expected on blogs, or indeed in journalism generally. Certainly it's no worse than comments made by Phillips or the other Murray. In the letter, solicitor Michael Clarke wrote:
The heading of the piece and the subsequent commentary to the effect that TQF has failed to file any accounts for the last three years.. and that this is "contrary to law"... constitute express, clear and obvious statements to the effect that TQF has acted illegally, that it is engaged in financial and accounting impropriety and that (by reference to the remark "this despite receiving a great deal of taxpayrs money, mostly to remunerate its cosseted directors"), this impropriety is directed particularly to reward the directors of the QF favourably and disproportionately.
However, it appears that the accounts were only filed six days after Murray had written his offending post, and the piece itself was updated to reflect this when it was brought to his attention (not by QF or its lawyers). The only possible allegation of impropriety relates to those accounts; nor does Murray state categorically (though perhaps he implies) that the failure to file was deliberate. Clarke writes of "the more particular allegation that public funds are being, in terms, misused to over-reward them individually"; but Murray doesn't say that the directors misappropriated public funds, merely that in his opinion they received too much of them. The suggestion that public funds are being misused in paying the salaries of Ed Husain and his colleagues is no more libellous of them than a statement that Jonathan Ross is paid too much by the BBC is libellous of Ross.
In any case, if QF wishes to divert attention from its principal source of income, it has a funny way of going about it. This case - if it ever comes to court - is likely to open up the QF to far greater scrutiny. Murray is in no apparent mood to back down, and comments that "they are going to find that ... we are going to discuss their salaries, pensions, expenses and emoluments in very great detail indeed." With a bit of luck, QF could turn out to be the next British Chiropractic Association. Murray might be a controversial character, but he's demonstated a relish for the limelight on many occasions and being threatened with legal action in this way will play to his strengths. And outside Whitehall and the Guardian, QF has far more enemies than friends - and as the post on Harry's Place shows, even its warmest supporters are dismayed by this turn of events.
It may well be that the Quilliam Foundation has a valid case in law: their solicitors have now informed Murray that they requested and were granted an extension of time in which to file their accounts. There is the question of the language used. But at most, Craig Murray has raised questions about an organisation that, in the name of tackling extremism, has received generous public funding and - despite little or no evidence of having any support inside the Muslim community in Britain - has gained considerable influence over government policy. This is a matter of legitimate public interest. Using the antiquated and draconian laws of libel to protect the wealthy (or, in this case, the well-connected) from proper scrutiny has, rightly, attracted increasing criticism and there is now a powerful campaign for reform. This may prove to be another nail in the coffin.