Thursday, February 03, 2011

Steamed up about free speech

Speech isn’t free in this country. You never have had the right to say anything you want. And sometimes it’s extremely expensive indeed.

Sky football commentator Andy Gray knows the high price that can be paid if you speak your mind, even in private.

But imagine you’re no more than a devoted steam railways fanatic and you find yourself with a legal bill of £335,000 as a result of something you wrote in a newsletter distributed to 413 people.

That’s what happened to Tom Watson and Richard Corser when they were involved in publication of an article in a newsletter for the 400 members of the 6024 Preservation Society.

The society is dedicated to preserving an old Great Western Railway steam engine called King Edward I. If you’re a steam buff, King Edward I is one of your pin-ups.

It was built in 1930, at a cost of £7,500. It ran for over 30 years hauling services such as the "Cornish Riviera Express", "The Bristolian", "The Inter City" and the "Cambrian Coast Express" sometimes travelling at over 100 mph.

It was withdrawn from service in 1962 and sent for scrap. It was rescued by the preservation society and moved to the Birmingham Railway Museum in Tyseley in 1989.

It was back on track the following year and has been hauling excursions ever since, largely thanks to the enthusiasts of the 6024 Preservation Society.

Unfortunately, they fell out with their chairman Steve Underhill. Luckily I don’t know the details of the dispute so I can’t run the risk of repeating what turned out to be a libel.

What I do know, however, is that Mr Underhill took exception to what was published in the society’s newsletter, “The King’s Messenger”.

It was so bad, he sued Mr Watson and Mr Corser for libel. And, instead of sitting down and coming to a sensible compromise, the two sides headed for our learned friends and the High Court.

This was a potentially disastrous decision for both sides – the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut.

A nasty squabble turned into a fully-fledged legal battle with the preservation society promising to back Mr Watson and Mr Corser.

In effect, the society put its ownership of the steam engine on the line. On the other side, Mr Underhill risked penury.

One side had to lose and the loss was bound to be devastating for somebody.

The train buffs argued that whatever they may have said about Mr Underhill was privileged because the newsletter only went to its own members.

Mr Underhill’s lawyers discovered it had also been sent to 13 people who send in photographs of the steam engine and were not members of the society.

As a result, the society lost its claim of privilege.

So then it was faced with arguing over the libel itself and, at this stage, the society threw in the towel, apologised to Mr Underhill for whatever it may have said, and agreed to pay him damages of £7,500.

Mr Underhill’s reputation was restored and the money he received was reasonable, given that only 413 people read the original allegations in the first place.

The society, on the other hand, was presented with a legal bill for a truly staggering £335,000. It has been forced to sell the engine to one of Britain’s richest men, Investment manager Jeremy Hosking.

To be fair, a hearing in the High Court is never a cheap option. Our learned friends like to think of themselves as taxis for hire but they tend to be taxis to the moon.

It is hard to imagine why either side was prepared to risk so much for so little. Admittedly, Mr Underhill emerges without a stain on his character and it does matter when someone is unfairly maligned in print.

Even so, the risk was enormous. He says: “Had my lawyers not believed in my integrity and agreed to fight this case on a ‘no win no fee basis’ after my own funds and those of my partner had run out, I would have been left with no means of removing a dreadful slur on my character.”

Had he lost, Mr Underhill, not the society, could be facing the massive £335,000 bill.

He might well say that, as the injured party, he would never have lost – but the law is a lottery. Just because you’re in the right doesn’t mean the law will come down on your side.

This country’s law courts are routinely used as a libel casino by the rich and famous from around the world.

It would be a pity to close off this opportunity for our flagging economy to earn some foreign currency.

But small societies and ordinary people must remember – the law is for the very rich and the very poor only. It is not for the likes of you and me – never has been, never will be.

If you find yourself in a serious dispute, my advice is try rock-paper-scissors. It’s cheap, there’s always a clear winner, and the result will be as fair and just as most decisions in the High Court.

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