Fraser Nelson

What you won’t read about terrorism in Britain

What you won’t read about terrorism in Britain
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I have some advice for CoffeeHousers hungry for the latest evidence about the guy who tried to blow up the Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight: go to the American press and their websites.  They are 100% free to pursue these stories: the press in Britain isn’t. Not any more. The suspect suffering second degree burns in hospital, named by the US authorities as a Nigerian called Farouk Abdul Mutallab, may have been living in London. This is, alas, no surprise. It fits with Britain’s reputation as Europe’s no1 incubator of terrorists  - let’s remember that the 7/7 bombers were home-grown. And it raises huge questions which a free press should be pursuing.

But this is a subject where the British press are not free. You’ll get the confirmed details, and the UK press will work as hard as they can to give you all the rest of the details. But to publish the results of any investigative work is far, far more risky here than in America. The reason for this is the notorious British libel laws, at their most pernicious when used to pursue journalists investigating Islamic terrorism.

In this case, the would-be bomber appears to be in hospital, thwarted by fellow passengers (and, from the sounds of it, candidates for heroism decoration). But these guys never act alone. What about his accomplices? After 7/7 the US press were free to name men identified by the US intelligence authorities as prime suspects. British publications repeating these names were sued by the people in question. In Britain, even convicted terrorists have successfully sued for defamation. Other aspects of a terror attack - family, friends, social networks, supportive organisations - will be in the American press far sooner than the British press. If a journalists’s “security sources” won’t testify in court (most won’t) then it’s not for use. Make no mistake: lawyers will be working overtime in Fleet St today, to cut and censor information that is written in good faith and in the public interest. This is what we all have to do now – magazines, newspapers, blogs, the lot.  It is precisely at moments like this, when journalists struggle to present a fuzzy picture as best they can to their readership, that the libel lawyers start dialling 118 and start asking those named if they’d like to try their luck and sue. 

Since becoming editor of The Spectator, I have been even more struck by the freedom of expression implications of all this. Investigating or writing about Islamic terrorism (which we do, on a point of principle) is perhaps the single most expensive thing that a UK publication can do (more than war reporting) because you can be guaranteed that lawsuits will follow. Even spurious claims can often get a settlement, because the process of engagement is so costly for the magazine or newspaper – and often no-win-no-fee means the complainant faces no outlay at all. We can even be sued for linking to overseas websites, or sued for a comment on a website.

An American named Rachel Ehrenfeld recently wrote a book called "Funding Evil," which accused a Saudi banker of channeling money to al Qaeda. He sued in London because she had sold just 23 copies in the UK – and the court ruled in his favour. She wrote about it in the Wall St Journal here

No publication likes to admit to the constraints the law put on us. It’s hardly an advert: “What follows is not the full story – for the latest please phone a journalist you know, or consult the press of some country where free speech is actually protected.” All this is, in my view, a serious threat to Britain. When events like this happen, journalists like myself cannot give you what we believe to be the full story – even if it clearly is in the public interest. Speech in this country isn’t free. And you can bet our politicians, still sore from the expenses row, will be in no hurry to change this. The Americans are in the process of protecting themselves from British libel laws. So they will, alas, be far freer to pursue the latest in this saga than we are here.

Written byFraser Nelson

Fraser Nelson is the editor of The Spectator. He is also a columnist with The Daily Telegraph, a member of the advisory board of the Centre for Social Justice and the Centre for Policy Studies.

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Topics in this articleSocietylawterrorismuk politics