The dismissal of David Beckham’s libel action against the prostitute Irma Nici has been widely reported as a ‘failure of his libel claim’. This has resulted in many members of the public believing that as a result of his case being ‘thrown out’ and having ‘failed’ it follows the allegations are true and that he did in fact cheat on his wife with a prostitute.
Now one cannot expect the general public to be au fait with the differences in US/UK libel laws but the salient point in this particular libel action, as I said on Daybreak back in September last year was that under US law, in order for Beckham to succeed, as a ‘public figure’ he would have to prove that the publisher acted with ‘malice’. Malice in this context means that the publisher knew that the statements was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements it was publishing. This significant condition was established in the case of the New York Times v Sullivan. This always imposes a heavy burden of proof on the plaintiff and is something that is very difficult to prove meaning successful libel actions by public figures in the US rarely succeed. In England ‘malice’ only needs to be proved if the Defendant publisher is claiming a defence of fair comment or qualified privilege. It follows that if the same allegations had been published in England and a proper fact checking exercise had not been undertaken by the publisher and neither had they sought comment from Beckham prior to publication, he would have had his victory in court and public vindication.
Unfortunately for Beckham the jurisdiction of his libel action was not in his favour, and his libel ‘failure’ in this case combined with the fact that he didnt sue for libel regarding the Rebecca Loos allegations is now being used by many, who with respect, I believe are far too quick to jump the gun, to claim that the Irma Nici allegations are true.
For many reasons, I am not at liberty to go in depth about the details of any previous allegations, nor the merits or indeed existence of any such previous legal action. However, I believe Beckham fully in this scenario and can’t help but empathise with the quandary he has found himself in, as a result of historic decisions and present legal hurdles.
As a previous claimant libel lawyer to many high profile figures and now in my role as an advisor to many newspapers including the Evening Standard, Metro, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday and Telegraph, I am often called gamekeeper turned poacher (unsuprisingly by many of my previous colleagues who claim I have turned to the ‘dark side’). I am a fervent supporter of free speech and I do believe libel reforms are necessary in the UK however I also think the example of David Beckham’s case illustrates that in some jurisdictions printing untrue and unfair statements about an individual is considered the cost of having a society and legal system that values free speech. I cannot fully accept nor do I agree with that sentiment and neither do I believe it would be in the interests of our society or for the greater good.
Where does that leave libel reforms in England one may ask? The answer is not simple, but in my opinion it is not just libel laws that need reforming but equally as importantly privacy laws that urgently need clarifying (in my opinion by statute) and the Rottweiler use of super injunctions needs to be put on a very tight leash and indeed considering what they were original designed to protect, it is possible that the latter needs to be put firmly back into the dog house only brought out for genuinely private matters or where there is a strong public interest that the disclosures should be kept from the public domain (again going back to their original purpose) rather than to protect the wealthy, powerful and more often that not corrupt (be it morally or commercially) from burying their sins and making a mockery of the law by using it as a public relations tool.