UK Libel Law Is Out Of Control. We Know From Experience.

The UK is coming under increasing fire for its out-of-control libel laws. And the consequences of the laws are clear – journalists/bloggers are shying away from writing anything controversial when it involves someone who lives in the UK. Or, increasingly, someone who may be willing to litigate in the UK despite not living there.

Most recently the NY Times wrote about the issue, describing how science journalists, worried about being sued, are afraid of calling out bogus medical procedures:

The problem the libel laws create is not so much that critical stories can’t be written, but that they won’t be. As the conversations I had this summer show, for many journalists and their employers the potential for a libel case is a powerful deterrent to criticism: the pieces aren’t worth the hassle. Singh has commented that “if I successfully defend my article, I will have had to have put my career on hold for probably two years, and it will cost me perhaps £25,000 [about $41,500] because I am unlikely to recover all my costs. And if I lose my case, then it will cost me roughly £500,000 [$800,000]. Fighting and winning is bad enough; fighting and losing is catastrophic.” Most writers won’t take the risk. And who can blame them?

We have first hand experience fighting UK libel laws. Until now we’ve kept the fight on the back burner on our CrunchNotes blog. But recent developments are so absurd I’m moving the discussion here.

We were sued in the UK earlier this year by Sam Sethi, a man who started a company called Blognation. The post that was the subject of the lawsuit, and which gives a lot of background on his antics, is here. In a nutshell, he’s a very, very bad guy.

So bad in fact that he has been banned from being an owner or executive in any UK company until 2015 (he has ignored that court order, and the UK doesn’t seem inclined to enforce it). And most of his previous employees have gone on record talking about how he committed fraud and other crimes (see “our second response” here, as well as here and here).

So we chronicled the activities of a convicted fraudster, who has been accused of new crimes by employees. And our reward was a lawsuit that our attorneys told us not to fight, because a “win” would mean months or years in court and legal costs that could exceed £500,000. Instead, we declined to participate in the circus, and a default judgement was awarded against us.

So what’s next? Well, my attorneys have advised me to stay away from the UK for a few years, which is difficult because I spent part of my childhood there, and worked in London earlier this decade. So all those friends have to visit me now. But luckily UK libel judgements are generally not enforceable in the U.S., so our core business is safe from this lunatic.

And by the way, Sethi, in one of his manic fits, has reached out to apologize to me. He sent the first email below to Paul Carr, who has covered this story and its absurdity in the past, and it appears as if he is genuinely remorseful. But his actual apology email to me, also below, lacks any of that remorse. And of course there’s no mention of dismissing the lawsuit. We weren’t going to publish either email until we saw Sethi’s promised public apology, but six weeks later it still hasn’t appeared, and now the UK banning order has come to light despite Sethi denying its existence. Yet more lies.

If the UK wants to continue to suppress free speech by facilitating more nonsense like this, they certainly have the right and ability to do so. But maybe it’s time for them to take a new look at those libel laws. A personal dispute between two tech bloggers is one thing. But stopping the public from knowing about useless and possibly dangerous medical practices is another.

The Theoretical Apology:

Hi Paul

I want to quickly thank you for your open letter, not that I enjoyed it but It really made me step back and think what am doing? When multiple friends tell you that you have crossed so many moral lines in writing those emails, it finally made me realise what a dick I have been for the past few years blaming other people actions for the downfall and failure of blognation when the ultimate blame lies with me.

Thus I would like to initially write Mike a private email [] personally apologising for my appalling behaviour and then I plan to write an open letter of apology on my blog.

So could you please confirm that the email addr above is Mike’s and please accept my apologies for my act(s) of stupidity that drove our friendship to the point of breaking. I hope you can start to forgive me and I know it may take many years before you could once again call me a friend but this is my first step in reconciliation.

Thanks in advance

The Non-Apology:

Hello Mike

Well I’ve procrastinated long enough about sending you this email but given the number of private emails that I’ve had published on Techcrunch, I guess it’s not surprising I’m mindful to be cautious.

That said I’m ever hopeful that this email will remain confidential between us. Therefore after careful consideration and advise from friends I would like to offer you my personal apology for my churlish behaviour in the past eighteen months and especially in regard to blognation and hope that we can now bring an end to this war of words.

It struck me as I wrote this email that it was about two years ago that we meet in London to discuss starting TCUK. It was obvious that London’s Startups needed a voice and I am pleased Mike B is doing such a good job in pushing out that voice across Europe.

I was going to write a war and peace email covering all the things that happened in the past two years both good and bad but frankly it’s water under the bridge and nothing I can say or do will change the past now. The damage has already been done.

However one thing I will always regret was trying to hide the funding delay from the editors simply because you might have published the fact. Sadly I was unaware xxxxx was still giving you leaked information, I just knew confidential docs were being leaked somehow.

At the end of the day, it matters not what xxxxx did or what you might have done, I was wrong to do so and no one else was responsible for my decisions. In this age of trust and transparency I should have simply told the editors of the delay and dealt with the fallout openly and honestly.

Regarding the termsheet I have to admit I was deeply upset that you chose to publish it even after we spoke but as Paul Carr said recently that was just business and a chance to bury a potential competitor.

Even after that I was still blindly considering trying to keep blognation going against all the odds with a new funding offer but realised that I had lost the trust of the editors and the various troll comments on TC hurt especially from people I knew. As you know to your own cost the mob can be vicious when it decides to turn on you but when people you consider friends do so it hurts even more so.

But it was the death of Marc that finally made me realise this had to stop. I was accused of his death, theft from you and forgery and much more. None of which were true but people believed it. With hindsight I wish I had never started blognation.

So I would like to reiterate I am sorry for the hurt and blame I levelled at you. In addition I have already apologised privately to the vast majority of the editors (not all) for my actions.

So what happens next I have no idea. My reputation is in pieces and in the eyes of many I am no longer considered a trusted agent (ala chris brogan). So for now I am taking timeout to spend more time with my family and friends and review thinds once again.

So all it leaves me to say for now is good luck Mike with Techcrunch.