In the distant decades when Socialist Worker was a lively, campaigning newspaper, its editors found themselves repeatedly threatened with libel. The Metropolitan police threatened a libel action in 1974 after Socialist Worker accused its officers of having killed a demonstrator Kevin Gateley at Red Lion Square. In March 1977, the paper was accused of libelling Clive Jenkins, the General Secretary of the white-collar union ASTMS. These, and other threats of libel, left the paper’s then editor Paul Foot with a lifelong feeling of contempt for the ways in which the rich, the powerful, and the custodians of bureaucratic organisations would use libel law to silence their critics. “Those of us who seek to publish uncomfortable facts about our fellow human beings are constantly being plagued by the law of libel”, he complained in the London Review of Books in 1991.
Twelve years later, after Alex Callinicos had falsely labelled Quintin Hoare, the translator of Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, as a supported of the Tudjman-era Croatian state, Paul Foot was asked to pen an appeal for the funds that would prevent Hoare’s action from bankrupting Callinicos’ publisher, Bookmarks. This is what he wrote:
“… It has been a long tradition in the labour movement that arguments between socialists should be conducted openly and should not, except in extreme circumstances, be tested in the courts by the libel laws. The reason for this tradition is simple. As soon as lawyers get involved in these arguments, the expense of the action in almost every case far exceeds both any damage done by the libel and anything a socialist publisher or author can possibly afford … Hence this appeal to anyone in the socialist and labour movement who would like to express their disapproval of pursuing political arguments through the law courts”.
Twenty years later, and Socialist Worker has a very different approach to those in the younger generation seeking to expose the cover-ups carried out by middle-aged men in their modest left-wing bureaucracies of power. It has stopped being a newspaper that dares the risk of libel, it has become a paper which uses libel to silence its critics.
So, this week, when students at Edinburgh University proposed a motion to say that the SWP should be banned from holding meetings on campus, in the light of what happened in the SWP in 2013, the SWP’s present National Secretary Charlie Kimber responded by threatening the students with a libel action. Asked by the Edinburgh students’ newspaper to justify his threats, he said, “The motion – and the article in The Student – were wholly inaccurate and, I believe, contained defamatory statements about readily-identifiable individuals”.
The victims in all of this are, of course, the students at Edinburgh. Defending a libel case takes time, causes immense worry, and can do psychological harm to those on the receiving end. Paul Foot was right too about the effect of costs: libel actions are brought in the High Court, which means that anyone bringing them must rely on the most expensive lawyers. It is the tradition in civil litigation that a party who wins their case is entitled to have the other side pay their costs. So although the damages to the claimant for loss of reputation are often modest, the lawyers’ bills can act as a multiplier of 5 or 10 to one or even more. In practice, publishers almost always try to settle rather than fight libel claims, and when do they fight them they are often bankrupted. For all these reasons, libel has been the device of bullies and petty tyrants through the ages.
If you believe it is a good thing that Edinburgh University has a students’ paper, or that the socialist publisher Bookmarks exists, then in general you should oppose those socialists who try to silence alternative views by threatening to go to court.
There is in addition something peculiarly unattractive about Charlie Kimber threatening libel to defend the reputation of “readily-identifiable individuals” (ie his predecessor in the role of National Secretary of the SWP). This individual chose to leave the SWP rather than explain himself before a disputes committee made up of SWP members which went on to find that he had “a case to answer” on an allegation of sexual harassment. Ordinarily, when an individual in any organisation is found to have a case to answer on misdeeds of this seriousness, and the effects of their behaviour have been to drive out a majority of that organisation’s young members, and several hundred people altogether from the group, you would expect that the individual’s name would be mud in the party that he has wrecked. But this time, the opposite applies: the SWP has never publicly repudiated him, nor commented on his resignation from that party. He has a blog, Dream Deferred, written jointly with a supporter of Unite Against Fascism. It has been promoted by Alex Callinicos a member of the central committee of the leadership of the SWP, while another SWP CC member has retweeted three of his personal posts on twitter in this month alone.
Should the students try to ban the SWP from campus? No: the best situation would be one in which the few new people who joined the SWP over the summer could have properly explained to them the depths that their organisation has recently plumbed. This is less likely to happen if the SWP keeps itself away from places where its members can be challenged.
But the students should be heartened by the thought that the SWP’s threats of libel are hollow. While in many cases, a libel threat can silence a critic, the more that it is relied on the more treacherous the weapon becomes. Many people have tried to use libel threats to silence critics – quite a few, of whom Oscar Wilde is the best known, have found that they were making a disastrous mistake.
The SWP’s problem is that truth is a complete defence to libel. And the only way that a court can establish whether a person has spoken untrtuthfully is by ordering both sides to disclose all the documents of a case and forming a view for itself. That means that one of the tasks facing any organisation seriously maintaining libel is to disclose to the court and to the party which it accuses of libel all the documents of the case, both those that support its case, and those that potentially undermine its case.
Charlie Kimber knows very well the catastrophic impact that the details of what happened during the two investigations would have – even on Smith’s most blinkered supporters, let alone on any new recruits to the SWP – if they were finally made public. He has no doubt been advised, or if he has not been advised, he should have been – that once a document has been part of court proceedings, there is nothing you can do to stop its open discussion. For those reasons, he will not pursue a libel threat to court.
There is finally a neat symmetry between the hollowness of the SWP’s threat, and the SWP’s hollowness in terms of what it purports to be: a revolutionary party, of the young and the questioning, where all those who are in the forefront of the struggle against oppression can meet.
You can see the emptiness in its publications, in the weariness with which it repeats analyses of the present stage of capitalism which have not changed in four decades, in the fatigue of its leaders, in the paucity of its interventions, in its inability to say anything to its critics. The SWP is already a hollow shell; this after all is exactly why Kimber thought it was necessary to threaten libel. Because there were undoubtedly no young students in Edinburgh, or anywhere else, who could be trusted to argue the leadership’s case in public.