Flawed libels are a danger to us all

Composer Keith Burstein tried to paint himself as the victim this week after he was bankrupted by Associated Newspapers. But the truth is that if he was to succeed in his ongoing libel action against the Evening Standard he would be striking a savage blow against freedom of speech in the UK.

Burstein sued after Standard theatre reviewer Veronica Lee described his opera Manifest Destiny as ‘depressingly anti-American”, adding, ‘The idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is, frankly, a grievous insult.”

Any newspaper editor in the country would have allowed her piece as well within the bounds of fair comment enjoyed by reviewers of all types.

But Burstein took exception and sued for libel.

The Court of Appeal held that the case did not even deserve to go before a jury and should be struck out – a decision which was upheld by the Lords in October 2007.

Burstein is seeking to take his case to the European Court and objects to paying the legal fees already run up by Associated Newspapers.

It is perverse that an artist should seek to constrain freedom of speech in this way.

The case also highlights another shortfall of the conditional fee agreement legal system which allowed Burstein to sue in the first place.

Associated Newspapers can well afford the £67,000 in fees it has run up seeing off Burstein’s unmeritorious campaign.

But a less well-off publisher, like a small local newspaper, would have been forced to admit defeat and settle rather than run up such an enormous legal bill.

Even with Associated’s deep pockets, it is wrong that the company now has less money to invest in its journalism because an impecunious libel claimant was able to take such a flimsy case so far.

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