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Guilty until proven innocent: double standards on misinformation

Why laws around information can’t only apply to people you agree with.

Dark-coloured books on a library bookshelf

A predictable backlash has followed news that four Russian billionaires along with the state-controlled oil producer Rosneft have filed lawsuits against HarperCollins over the book Putin’s People written by former Financial Times journalist Catherine Belton. The book details the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and describes in detail his relationships with various high profile oligarchs, and the litigation over its contents has come in for immediate and strident criticism.

The lawsuits, which have been brought under both libel and data protection laws, have raised serious criticism, notably from Index on Censorship which told The FT the claims sought to “quash critical journalism, not only in the UK, but around the world”. Roman Abramovich’s legal action alleges “false and defamatory” statements are made about him in the book concerning the reasons behind his purchase of Chelsea football club in 2003. Whilst freedom of speech and critical journalism which talks truth to power is vital to the functioning of our democracy, is there a double standard at work in how we judge these matters?

It is hard to argue strongly for laws that make it possible to challenge misinformation and to tackle smears only to decide that they are only available to certain people in certain circumstances. The law must be blind in this respect and the identity of the claimants has to be separated from any cause of action.

This is not to pretend that the cost of legal proceedings does not have an influence, but nor is it tenable to argue that well-resourced media defendants are at an enormous disadvantage. This field of litigation is littered with media organisations using their financial muscle to frustrate those with legitimate complaints against them – from phone hacking claims defended until they no longer could be to the bizarre sight of summary judgement being granted in Meghan Markle’s claims against Associated Newspapers after a clear cut case was strenuously defended. Leaving aside whether litigating cases of this nature will ever achieve benefits for those involved, the very existence of cases such as those filed by the Russian oligarchs is not automatically indicative of the system being abused.

There is clearly need for reform around how the law protects against misinformation and how these protections are balanced with our right to free speech but the assumption about individuals involved in lawsuits should not be a determining factor. It can’t be that people we don’t like or that have been maligned in the media (regardless of how reasonable these assessments may be) are not entitled to the same rights as others. The idea that on the basis of public opinion some people should be guilty until proven innocent should raise real concerns for us all and especially if we are serious about reforming this vital area of law.

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