You Can't Read This Book, new book on the ugly truth of English libel law

The Guardian published a long excerpt from Nick Cohen's forthcoming You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, a fantastic-looking book that reveals the dirty truth of English libel law, where "money buys silence" for some of the world's most notorious dictators, thieves, and bad guys. English libel law is so broad that it allows, for example, Russian oligarchs to sue Russian newspapers for punitive sums ("the cost of libel actions in England and Wales is 140 times higher than the European average") in an English court, merely by demonstrating that someone, somewhere in England looked at the paper's website. And yet, the libel law in England and Wales doesn't actually protect people from the most common forms of libelous publication: false declarations of criminal suspicion by the police, false claims of financial irregularities from credit reporting bureaux and false statements in former employers' reference letters are protected unless they can be shown to have been malicious and negligent.

The book doesn't appear to have US distribution, but there are some importers selling it on Amazon's US site, too.

In 2006, reporters on the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet decided to investigate the stunning rise of the Icelandic bank Kaupthing, which was buying assets across Denmark. How, they asked, had a bank from a volcanic island without the resources to support a huge and voracious financial sector become so powerful? The newsdesk decided they should concentrate on the links between the bank, Russian oligarchs and tax havens. Kaupthing was furious. It was accustomed to receiving praise from the financial press for the entrepreneurial dynamism of its managers. It threatened to sue Ekstra Bladet in Copenhagen and at the same time filed a complaint with the Danish Press Council, which handled cases of breaches of press ethics.

The paper defended its journalism and the Danish Press Council rejected the bank's complaint. Kaupthing withdrew its Danish lawsuit and the argument seemed to be over until Ekstra Bladet's bewildered editors heard that the bank was now suing them in London. The costs were beyond anything they had experienced before. In Denmark, lawyers consider a libel action that costs £25,000 expensive. In London, lawyers for Kaupthing and Ekstra Bladet ran up costs of close to £1m before the case came to court. Ekstra Bladet could not run the risk of doubling, maybe trebling, the bill if it lost. It agreed to pay substantial damages to Kaupthing, cover its legal expenses and carry a formal apology on its website.

A few months later, Kaupthing, along with the other entrepreneurial, go-ahead Icelandic banks, collapsed. Iceland's GDP fell by 65%, one-third of the population said they were considering emigration and the British and Dutch governments demanded compensation equivalent to the output of the entire Icelandic economy for the lost deposits of their citizens in Kaupthing and other banks.

You Can't Read This Book: why libel tourists love London (via Naked Capitalism)


  1. The only US  distributor currently showing at your Amazon link is The Book Depository, a specialist in selling British books to American consumers and the first place I go when I want a British book not published in the US. The book is slightly cheaper at their own website instead of through Amazon.

  2. I really don’t understand how an Icelandic company can sue a Danish company in a UK court.  But then, I don’t understand the US-UK extradition treaty either.

    1. If it helps: I don’t either. How is this (“merely by demonstrating that someone, somewhere in England looked at the paper’s website” and so on) justified?

    2. To be libelled in Britain you need to have a reputation within Britain to libel and a means of the libel happening.  In this case the Bank did have a reputation within Britain and the Paper had a readership within Britain that could affect the reputation.  So a libel has happened.

      The definitions of readership and reputation have been badly stretched though (thus the reform campaign/bill).  Other jurisdictions don’t have to recognise a UK court decision though, and if a person/organisation have now assets in the UK there isn’t anything the ruling can actually do.  I seem to remember a few US states passed laws specifically against UK libel decisions because of this. 

      1. Unfortunately, many of us Europeans are not so lucky. It has been said that if a claim for damages resulting from a court verdict in the UK came from the UK, my country (Norway) had to collect from a citizen or resident, due to the EEA agreement. Of course, European cooperation is generally a good thing, but sometimes it does tie one’s hands.

  3. UK Libel laws being awful isn’t really a new thing. Nick Cohen is awful though – his weekly columns are bizarre rants against the ‘traditional left’, which only seems to exist in his imagination. He’s stuck in a weird 1980s student politics dimension or something.

    It’d be good if he made enough off this book to retire though, he ruins the Observer newspaper every week.

    1. I think Nick Cohen has a point in the book “What’s left?” regarding the “I never meet a non-Western dictatorship I didn’t like” type of European leftie (please note that this is not leftie bashing as such, I’m a member of the Labour party in my country).

      1. It’s this “I never meet a non-Western dictatorship I didn’t like” I don’t understand. The only people I know of who think that are right-wing.

        This idea he has that there’s a huge swathe of ‘the left’ that supports foreign dictatorships on the basis of cultural sensitivity is an exaggeration at best.

  4. I guess this justifies blocking all U.K. IP addresses from your website if you don’t want to be sued in London for libel.

  5. How have laws and enforcement changed since the famous McLibel case involving McDonald’s and the activists Helen Steel & Dave Morris? The 2005 documentary “McLibel – Two People Who Wouldn’t Say Sorry” is an inspiring tale and ends with a ruling in their favor by a European court. The documentary is online – worth watching –

  6. There where plenty of crooks in Kaupthing but there was no Russian mob connection. That is why it lost. It was a hack job. Ekstra Bladet is a tabloid and plenty of Danish Banks are and where worse run than than Kaupthing and would have folded if it wasn’t for the Northsea oil they have access to through the Danish state and the Icelandic state does not. 

    The true crime is how Kaupthing and Landsbankinn where distributed between the centrist rightwing and the rightwing party followers but that doesn’t sell papers in Denmark. They want to hear about Russian mobsters. 

    I don’t feel there is anything wrong with handing Ekstra Bladet its arse for a hackjob like that. 

  7. Libel only applies to published works. Spoken defamatory comments would come under slander, which is slightly different.

    There are, in fact, defences under UK law for libel already, but the way the law has developed tends to put a lot of the onus on the defendent, encouraging the person claiming to have been libelled to take a punt on an action.

    Most importantly in relation to politicians, anything said in Parliament has absolute privilege: it doesn’t have to be fair, true or made in good faith. Comments made in Parliament have some degree of privilege too. It does sporadically happen that UK politicians deliberately air facts under legal contention (e.g. statements that are part of a libel action and thus “unreportable” in Parliament in order to get them into the public domain).

    It’s a very backwards-facing way of ensuring freedom of information, however.

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