Wasn’t the whole point of crowdfunding supposed to be about enabling community and artistic projects to take place? That was how I remember it being sold to us, at any rate. But no, I got it wrong. It turns out that the real point of it is to help celebrities pay their legal bills.
Dr Christian Jessen, who appears on a Channel 4 show called Embarrassing Bodies, has been ordered by a Belfast court to pay £125,000 in libel damages to former Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster for tweeting the false allegation that she was having an extra-marital affair. It is believed that legal costs could add a further £300,000 to his bill.
How to pay? Not, apparently, from his earnings as a celebrity doctor. Jessen has set up a crowdfunding page, claiming that he is suffering from serious mental health issues and that he is considering launching an appeal. By Monday morning, he had raised £7000 of the £150,000 he is hoping to raise.
I am not without sympathy for Dr Jessen. While he might have been wrong to issue his tweet, and ignored a request from Foster’s lawyer to delete it quickly – something which might have saved him from a legal trial – libel law in Northern Ireland has escaped even the modest reforms enacted in England and Wales over the past decade. As Kate Hoey and many others have complained, it is exerting a chilling restriction on the ability of investigative newspapers. This isn’t just a result of punitive awards, but of grossly excessive fees, which allow the wealthy to silence their critics through the threat of financial ruin. Moreover, libel courts over the past few decades have hardly proved themselves to be adept at teasing out the truth. We have seen often enough, from cases such as Robert Maxwell, how they can fall on the side of rogues.
That said, what does the involvement of crowdfunding add to the problem? Nothing, other than to up the stakes, to turn the libel courts into even more of a casino. You are a celebrity who thinks someone has been unreasonably rude about you? No need to risk your own money on dragging them through the courts; why not use your power and fame to raise money from your fans instead? True, it wasn’t Jessen who brought this action, but still the involvement of crowdfunding to pay personal legal bills is a step in the wrong direction.
Campaign to reform libel laws – to make sure there is a higher bar for the merit of claims, to cap costs, or even to remove the right altogether to pass your costs onto the other side – and I’m with you. Let’s have a UK ‘first amendment’ to defend free speech in all but the most serious cases of libel. But set up a crowdfunding page to fund your legal bills and it gets us nowhere towards libel law reform – it merely paves the way for even bigger and more ruinous libel actions.