Friday, 1 October 2010

Suing Sally

David Allen Green, legendary blogger and champion of such worthy causes as chiropractors' nemesis Simon Singh, Twitter humorist Paul Chambers and Councillor John Dixon, fearless foe of Scientological stupid, has a new heroine. His word, not mine. Step forward Mrs Speaker, Sally Bercow (née Illman), ex Tory totty turned would-be Labour candidate and a woman with an enviable talent for opening her mouth and getting into trouble.

Our Sally was never a shrinking violet, but since her husband's elevation to the Speaker's chair she has been unstoppable. There were the self-revelations of boozing and one-night stands, of course. In June, the enthusiastic Tweeter opined that George Osborne was "mental". More recently, she ruffled a few diplomatic feathers by urging her followers to mark Pope Benedict's arrival in Britain by sponsoring her parachute jump in aid of Stonewall - and then promising not to land on the pontiff. The Daily Mail declared that she had "joined the chorus of secularist attacks on the Pope," which was probably an exaggeration.

The other day Andrew Pierce accused her of being "swivel-eyed" and her Tweets "increasingly childish". If Mrs Bercow were as litigious as she is outspoken, that might be grounds for legal action. Instead, it is she who finds herself the proud recipient of a threatening letter from solicitors. Not that the Pope is suing her (any more than he sued Richard Dawkins, who called him "a leering old villain in a frock"). Nor is George Osborne. No, she has upset Migration Watch and its leader, Sir Andrew Green, for comments she made during a newspaper review on Sky News in August. Discussing an Express story linking mass immigration with youth unemployment, which drew on Migration Watch press release (as many such stories do), she described the pressure group as a "right wing think tank" and claimed that similar arguments had once been used by Hitler and Sir Oswald Mosley. Migration Watch are accusing her of calling them fascists, and demanding an apology and costs. Instead of backing down, she has engaged the services of Jack of Kent, who is rapidly becoming the legal world's Max Clifford. (Being sued for some anodyne comment or dense scientific paper? Facing laughable criminal charges? You know who to call...) Well done her.

Not that I feel like defending the substance of her apparent remarks. Decrying anyone who questions the benefits of large-scale immigration as a right-wing extremist or Hitler fan is lazy and offensive. As a cheap debating point it's a wearingly familiar left-wing tactic. And of course it's Godwin's Law in action: when you start bringing up Hitler, it's frequently a sign you've run out of proper arguments.

Migration Watch is right to cry foul, and I can even sympathise with their frustration at hearing the accusation yet again, this time from the wife of the supposedly non-political speaker. (Yes, I know that she isn't the Speaker, and that such strictures therefore shouldn't apply to her. But then again I've never heard Prince Philip using that excuse.) But to launch a libel action the basis of casual comments made during a little-watched newspaper review is ridiculous. For one thing, Mrs Bercow's comments were taken apart quite comprehensively by her fellow guest, Iain Dale, who made most of the points made by Migration Watch's solicitors. The group simply does not need to resort to the law to rebut the claims (which were, as Dale pointed out, "preposterous"). This action will very likely prove counter-productive, putting Migration Watch's sometimes questionable statistics under the microscope and drawing attention to the use made of their statistics by actual right-wing extremists.

Legal letters like this are basically attempts to extort money with menaces, the menace being the law of libel, which is draconian in fact but even more draconian in reputation. Lawyers calculate that recipients will be scared shitless by the prospect of a financially ruinous court action and meekly apologise. And pay the solicitors' generous "costs". More often than not, they do. It's a scam. And it's scandalous that the law continues to allow them to do so.

It's too early to discuss what might happen in court (I'd be amazed if this gets within a mile of an actual court), but I'd like to offer, among other arguments, what I shall call the Hitler defence. Given that invoking the Fuehrer is so common, indeed offhand, a rhetorical trope, it's a fair bet that almost no-one who uses it ever does so literally. Saying "the Nazis did things like that" is a hyperbolic way of saying "that's a really bad idea". Saying "you're as bad as Hitler" means "I don't agree with you. A lot." As a point of historical fact, I don't believe the Nazis made much capital out of immigration. Their principal targets were the Jews, who had been living in Germany for centuries.

Calling the lawyers' bluff in such cases is a high-risk strategy. Simon Singh eventually won his tussle with the British Chiropractic Association, of course, but only after an Appeal Court hearing and at the expense of thousands of pounds and more than a year of his life. On the other hand, former diplomat Craig Murray was threatened with legal proceedings after being uncomplimentary on his blog about Ed Husain and the Quilliam Foundation. He just told them to get stuffed, and eventually they did.

I'm happy to support Sally Bercow defence of this vexatious litigation. But she's not my heroine. She is no Simon Singh, standing up for the right to engage in robust debate on matters of importance for public health and science. Unlike Paul Chambers, her life has not been wrecked by a demented Crown Prosecution Service. She has ruthlessly exploited her husband's position to get herself in the public eye, yet pretends it has nothing to do with her. That, though, is the point. Free expression is not just for "heroes" or people we happen to agree with. If it means anything, it means the right of stupid people to say stupid things.

UPDATE: The exchange of solicitors' letters, and a transcript of the Sky News segment, are available in pdf format here. Inserted between the legal letters is a highly apologetic note to Sir Andrew Green which the solicitors wanted Sally Bercow to sign.