Saturday, 25 April 2009

It's now fine to call individual MPs thieves

There was a time not so long ago when a newspaper's lawyers would have given birth to kittens if a columnist called a minister a thief in his copy. Not only potential libel - but potential criminal libel, a far more serious thing, a criminal offence in itself, would earn the copy an automatic blue pencil.

No longer.

It is a measure of just how far the reputation of our Parliamentarians has fallen that it's now fine to call Jacqui Smith or Tony McNulty a thief in print. Peter Oborne does so in today's Mail:

The two main offenders are his shameless Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and his wretched Employment Minister, Tony McNulty, who last year claimed £12,600 worth of expenses on a property where his parents live, 11 miles from Westminster.

Instead, the Prime Minister defended these two thieves — and I repeat, if they wish to sue me for using that word, I look forward to seeing them in court.

So why have the print lawyers become so quiescent? I think I know.

First, in the matter of criminal libel, no sane person imagines that Smith or McNulty are being accused of an offence under s.1 of the Theft Act 1968. They are not being accused of having committed the criminal offence of theft, but of being thieves in the wider sense of the word.

No one imagines that the Thief of Time should be indicted under s.1, or the girl who has stolen my heart be compelled on conviction under s.1 to make restitution. Smith and McNulty are thieves in the popular, not the technical sense of the word. This deals with criminal libel - but what of civil-law libel? Isn't this still actionable?

Well yes. Except the author can claim that the use of the term is justified - a sound defence to an action for libel. And this is the nub. There's not a judge nor jury in the country who would not believe that Smith and McNulty are thieves in the popular sense of the word. It's true. The term is justified, and therefore not libellous.

So the papers, and the blogs, can now safely call any MP who has abused the expenses system a thief. The way is clear in July, when receipts are revealed, for the 'Sun' to publish an entire front page of MPs' mugshots over the headline THIEVES.

And there's not a damn thing they can do about it.

1 comment:

Chalcedon said...

PO urged her to sue him. It was a sue me if you dare. Would be interesting if she did, as criminal libel cases are rare.

I wonder who will be called as witnesses if Nadine D goes ahead and sues Damien McBride? Now that would be FUN!