Opendemocracy: the Libdems tried to censor our article about their sale of voter data, then used a forged email to intimidate us

There's not really any dispute that the UK Liberal Democrats party sold voter data for £100,000 to the Remain campaign in 2016, though the Information Commissioner's Office tried to suppress that revelation until after the coming election; the Libdems say they did nothing wrong, but when Opendemocracy's Jim Cusick approached the party for a statement ahead of an article, he got no reply.

What happened next is...weird.

After Cusick's article went live, an aggrieved Libdem "senior official" wrote to Opendemocracy, demanding to know why their statement hadn't been included in the article. Cusick said it was because he'd never received a statement, but if they'd furnish one, he'd include it. But instead of a statement, Cusick got a legal threat from an expensive firm of solicitors, Goodman Derrick, demanding that the article be censored, either by removing "all derogatory and disparaging statements" (having read the article, I couldn't find any statements that qualified), or removal of the article altogether.

Given that the Libdems style themselves "the party of liberty," that is indeed weird.

But what happened next is weirder.

Opendemocracy asked the lawyers to provide a statement from the Libdems to include in their article, pointing out that they'd made three such requests without a response. In the absence of any statement from the Libdems (apart from the legal threat conveyed by their lawyers), Opendemocracy made a "surmise" about what the Libdems didn't like about their coverage and amended the article.

Then they heard from the lawyers again, stating that the Libdems had provided an "on the record" response to Cusick's article, on Nov 12, and they attached that email as proof.

Here's where the really weird stuff comes in.

Cusick didn't ask the Libdems for comment until Nov 13, which meant that the email the lawyers had attached as evidence had apparently been sent a full day before Opendemocracy wrote to the party seeking comment.

Opendemocracy wrote back to the lawyers, asking how this was possible.

When the lawyers did not reply, Opendemocracy wrote again, saying that they were about to publish a story about this and seeking comment. This time, someone from the Libdem press office called Opendemocracy and said a "mistake had been made" and said there was an investigation ongoing. So Opendemocracy generously gave the Libdems even more time to reply before publishing.

The party finally wrote back with a statement saying that "we have been made aware that the information openDemocracy subsequently received from the Liberal Democrats was incorrect. We have suspended a member of staff involved and are following due process."

But in addition to this, the Libdems' lawyers wrote back to Opendemocracy, repeating the threats over their coverage of the Libdems' data sale, and insisting that neither the lawyers nor the party had known about the fake email (Opendemocracy called it a "crude forgery"), despite the fact that Opendemocracy had painstakingly detailed their multiple attempts to solicit a comment from the party without a reply.

This is an embarrassment: as Opendemocracy points out, it doesn't rise to the level of open fraud committed by the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson, but the Tories don't style themselves "the party of liberty." Speaking as a former Libdem party member and campaigner (I'm a member of the Labour Party now), I don't believe the party should have flogged off voter data, but even moreso, I don't think that any party can be said to stand for "liberty" when its response to negative press coverage is to threaten to rain down expensive, punitive legal action from fancy lawyers.

First, why was the Lib Dem press office so desperate to discredit our story? In Jim Cusick’s initial communications with them, he told them we had seen internal documents about the Lib Dems’ lucrative 2016 data sale. If, as they strongly maintain, the party had acted in accordance with the law at all times and had done nothing wrong, why did someone think it was important enough to repeatedly make false claims, including a faked document, via expensive lawyers?

What did our story reveal that prompted this level of duplicity?

Second, the replies from Goodman Derrick were issued on behalf of the party and of its leader, Jo Swinson. This assumes that senior figures were involved. Who sanctioned and signed off this aggressive legal pursuit, including the letter with the forged email? And how might Lib Dem supporters and donors feel about this appalling use of party funds?

Perhaps most importantly, though, what does this whole episode say about the so-called ‘Liberal’ Democrats’ regard for fact-checking, accuracy and press freedom? We at openDemocracy are a small team. The distraction has cost us valuable staff time and legal bills, which could otherwise have been spent on doing actual journalism during the final weeks before the most important election in a generation.

What are Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats so desperate to hide? [Mary Fitzgerald/Opendemocracy]