LIBEL ON THE INTERNET – 18 March 1998
Dr Julian Lewis: In the three or four minutes that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr Miller) has generously left me, I should like to refer to the impeccable timing of yesterday's Evening Standard report, headed "Police hunt 15 Internet bombs made by children". The report began:
"Police are searching for 15 lethal home-made bombs taken home by London schoolchildren. The explosive devices, copied from a design on the Internet, are from the same batch as one which blew apart a telephone box in Sidcup this month.
"They are made of copper tubing packed with a simple but powerful explosive.
"A police spokesman said: 'Given the damage to the phone box, which was blown apart, they could maim or even kill.' "
Mr Battle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr Lewis: No, I will not give way in the tiny amount of time I have available: I am sure the Minister will understand.
Another aspect of the internet which can have a lethal effect on a person's reputation is the use of the internet to defame, libel and undermine people, in private or public. I have personal experience of this. The story goes back to 1993, when a magazine called Scallywag thought it would make a reputation for itself by defaming the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Major), by accusing him of having an adulterous relationship with a caterer.
My right hon. Friend took legal action against the editors of the magazine and the shell company which published it, but had to discontinue it because they had no assets. Had he continued, my right hon. Friend would have run up huge costs, which would have been awarded against the magazine and its impecunious editors. The editors would then have gone bankrupt, and my right hon. Friend would have had to pay his own legal costs, which would have been enormous. After that so-called triumph, the magazine decided that anyone was fair game. If the Prime Minister could not stop it, who could?
Every married member of the then Conservative Cabinet became a fair target for accusations of adultery, and every unmarried member became a fair target – in their eyes – for accusations of secret homosexuality. Sometimes married members were accused of that as well. In November 1994, the magazine made allegations of that sort about me. By dint of finding out the identity of the printers and the main distributors – attempts had been made to keep them secret – I was able to take legal action in this country which cleared my name and collapsed the magazine as a going concern.
It was my misfortune that, at that time, the internet had just come into existence, and the magazine went on it. To this day, the same filthy lying allegations about my private and political life are repeated on the internet. I did what anybody would do under the circumstances, and where there was a course of action. I sued the internet provider, Demon Internet Services, in Britain. It promptly closed down the site, and I received a settlement which I felt was a vindication. However, the site, predictably, was opened by an internet service provider abroad. There is no effective action I can take to prevent that provider from continuing to blacken my name.
My selection as a candidate was imperilled by this filth. My period as a prospective parliamentary candidate for my seat was damaged by this filth. My election campaign was, to some extent, undermined by this filth. It is filth on an international level. It may bring smiles to the faces of some Labour Members because it happened to a would-be Conservative Member of Parliament. It could just as easily happen to them.