SLAPP happy

One of the reasons that Jimmy Savile got away with his abuse for so long was the UK’s libel laws. Savile was highly litigious, and would send his very expensive lawyers after any publication that so much as considered reporting allegations about him.

The fact that the allegations were true was irrelevant. Savile was rich, and that means he could use the law as a weapon. And he did, from the 1960s until his death in 2011. For five decades he used his money to stop people telling the truth about who and what he was.

As Meirion Jones explained in The Guardian, The Sun wanted to expose him in 2008 and had multiple signed affidavits from his victims, but – yet again – did not publish. “They would be facing the best QCs money could buy, representing a man who could potentially call Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, the heads of charities, the head of the BBC and the pope as character witnesses. The best guess of the lawyers was that a libel action could cost a million pounds… this wasn’t the first or last time that Savile escaped because of our libel laws, which rewarded his deliberate targeting of vulnerable victims. Off the record, journalists have told me of multiple attempts to blow the whistle on Savile from the 1960s onwards that failed because newspapers could not afford the legal risks involved.”

When even The Sun can’t afford to be taken to court, imagine the chilling effect on smaller publishers and individuals. In Britain, the rich can silence the truth by threatening legal action – action that, even if the defendant were successful, would financially ruin them. As a result, the truth about some famous people will not emerge until they die.

This kind of bullying is known as a SLAPP – a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation – and the UK government describes SLAPP actions as “an abuse of the legal process, where the primary objective is to harass, intimidate and financially and psychologically exhaust one’s opponent via improper means”. The Law Society says that “Unlike genuine defamation claims – which typically arise out of an attempt to protect or repair the claimant’s damaged reputation – SLAPPs go further, aiming to prevent lawful investigations and discussions about matters of public interest.”

SLAPPs are legal in the UK, and they – or the threat of them – remain one of the favourite bullying tactics of oligarchs, super-rich individuals who can afford to abuse the legal system. But they have limited reach, which is why you’ll typically find them used only against UK residents who can’t afford to go to court. The oligarchs who use SLAPPs and SLAPP threats rarely, if ever, go after people with money, and they can’t stop people in other countries from telling the truth about who or what they are.

This post isn’t about Jimmy Savile.