Law Must be Changed says New Forest East MP
By Julian Lewis
Southern Daily Echo – 31 December 1998
Do you remember the case of the family doctor who sued a woman who publicly defamed him? He won his case but lost huge sums paying his own lawyers when she declared herself bankrupt. Clearing his name nearly ruined him.
This is the problem of the "destitute defamer" – the penniless "man of straw" who slanders and libels people with impunity, because he has nothing to lose.
On 23 December, the Daily Echo reported that – as a result of my evidence to the police – the editor of the defunct Scallywag magazine, a former bankrupt called Simon Regan, had been convicted of seven charges of publishing false statements about me. As it was a criminal trial, it was the state (not I) which had to pay all legal costs when Regan announced that he was living on income support.
The costs will have totalled £100,000 or more.
In 1993, Regan had falsely accused the then Prime Minister, John Major, of committing adultery with his caterer. Mr Major sued but eventually had to drop the action for fear of incurring irrecoverable costs. After that, Regan thought he could write anything about anybody, and he sought to protect the magazine by making it hard to identify its printers and main distributors.
In late 1994 and early 1995, Scallywag accused me of being a secret homosexual and a liar for denying it. By discovering the firms involved in printing and disseminating the magazine and issuing a writ against them, I soon crippled Regan's operation. His magazine collapsed and, naturally, I became his number-one target.
Then he turned to the Internet. The Internet is a marvellous invention for the spreading of knowledge, but is also a lethal means of directing child pornography, racial hatred, suicide techniques and bomb-making methods into millions of unsuspecting households. For about £150 a year Regan could and did post filthy sexual lies about me onto the World Wide Web, via an 'Internet Service Provider' overseas – beyond the reach of British justice. I had already successfully sued his first (British) ISP.
The fact that he persisted during the 1997 General Election campaign laid him open to criminal rather than civil prosecution. During the four days of the trial, his lawyer had to admit that Regan had no shred of evidence for his disgraceful claims about my private life, and he failed to produce a single witness to back any of them up – a point emphasised by the senior magistrate who found him guilty.
I believe that the law of libel requires major revision.
First, those who finance publications knowing them to be likely to be libellous, must become liable to be sued on the same basis as printers and distributors. At various times, Scallywag magazine was funded by several quite wealthy sponsors – but they could not be sued under the law as it stood.
Secondly, those who edit, write or publish libellous material should be guilty of a criminal offence if they refuse immediately to disclose to their victims the identities of their financiers and their distributors, as well as their printers.
Thirdly, it should become a criminal offence to defame someone in the knowledge one has no ability to pay even the basic legal costs of the victim, if indeed he or she is found to have been libelled.
Only the criminal law can deal with characters like Regan. It must be brought to bear more widely, not just in the limited case of candidates standing in a General Election.
[For subsequent developments in this campaign, see Julian's House of Commons speech 'INTERNET LIES IN GENERAL ELECTIONS', 30 November 1999.]
[For an obituary of Simon Regan from the GUARDIAN click here.]