Archive for March 2010
I’m grateful to Tony Baldry MP for providing the following response to a number of questions I put to him last week:
Dear Mr. Wilson,
Thank you for your email.
I think it may be helpful if I make a number of points.
Firstly, I have sought to respond promptly to any letters or emails that are sent to me on this matter. However, my experience is that organisations such as the Nigerian Liberty Forum and Rally for Nigeria either claim that they have never received my responses, or simply ignore the contents.
Part of my frustration with the Independent on Sunday was that the journalist concerned made no proper effort to get in touch with me, or to put to me the matters which were going to become allegations in his article. This hardly strikes me as being responsible journalism.
I think it is also fair to observe that notwithstanding the Independent on Sunday’s apology and correction, again, without making any attempt whatsoever to get in touch with me, you simply sought to repeat the IOS’s earlier allegations which were untrue and defamatory.
I have no quarrel with political blogs. I believe they serve a genuinely useful purpose in making our politics more vibrant, but I see no justification for bloggers, particularly those who are journalists like yourself, simply repeating allegations which the newspaper concerned has acknowledged were incorrect.
Incidentally, it was not my intention that your blog should be removed; simply that the defamatory material should be removed.
As I had not had the opportunity prior to publication of discussing the issues with the journalists concerned, my objective was simply to ensure that there was a correction printed as soon as possible based on the facts.
I have not read your further blog. I think that the Olswang letter, which is now available on the internet, together with the correction from the Independent on Sunday, reflect a fair and accurate statement of the facts.
As I have repeatedly made clear, I have taken no action in this matter as a Member of Parliament. My locus has been as a barrister, properly instructed.
Attention has focused on the letter that I wrote to the Foreign Secretary. Various allegations have been made against me, all of which are untrue; it has been said that the letter sought to persuade the Government to discontinue the prosecutions at present being undertaken at Southwark Crown Court – untrue.
It has been suggested that the letter sought to persuade the Government/prosecuting authorities to discontinue the investigation into James Ibori – untrue.
It has been suggested that I advised that any investigation into Mr. Ibori should be discontinued as being detrimental to British interests – again, untrue.
I understand that an application has been made under the Freedom of Information Act to the Foreign Office for disclosure of the letter and this, I understand, has been refused by the Foreign Office on the grounds that its release could be detrimental to relations between the UK and another Government and also that its release could be detrimental to the administration of justice, and as a member of the Bar, I think I would be quite rightly open to criticism if, given those conclusions by the Foreign Office, doubtless in consultation with the Office of the Attorney-General, I was to publish the letter myself. That matter, as I understand it, is now before the Information Commissioner for him to decide.
However, I think that you and organisations such as the NLF, might like to reflect on the motivation and tactics of whoever “leaked” the existence of this letter to the NLF.
If they had thought that I had done something untoward, as a Member of Parliament , they could presumably have “leaked” the whole letter, or acted in such way as that the letter could have been made available to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards who regulates the conduct of Members of Parliament. Indeed, the day after the IOS’s article was published, I immediately sent the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards a copy of the letter myself.
So those who “leaked” the existence of the letter, chose to leak what were clearly selective, inaccurate, and untrue assertions as to its contents.
So, for example, the NLF at the outset were clearly convinced that the purpose of my letter had somehow been to interfere in the existing trial of defendants at Southwark. But as I have explained to organisations such as the NLF, and Rally for Nigeria, way back in February, so far as the Southwark proceedings were concerned, my letter stated in terms “I do not represent any of these defendants, and am in no way involved with their defence, and of course the conduct of that case is a matter for the Crown Court”.
Moreover, I do somewhat have the impression that whatever the facts in this case, and however often I respond to queries, there is a determination to try and find something untoward. So, for example, I understand that you have made a request to the Foreign Office, under the FOI, for a copy of the envelope in which the letter was sent. I hope they still have it, as it will show that it is a perfectly normal white envelope !
I repeat. At no time has my involvement in this matter been as a Member of Parliament, but as a barrister.
As a Member of Parliament, I am under the rules of the House, obliged to make a number of declarations in the Register of Members’ Interests with regard to any outside interests. This I have fully done.
Finally, as a general point, it has always been a valued tradition of the English Bar, that the English Bar will properly represent and give the best possible advice to anyone involved with the English criminal system, irrespective of the allegations being made against those individuals. As far as I am aware, we have never had a situation in England where journalists and the media have sought to attack Members of the Bar because of the clients they represent.
I appreciate that I have not answered all of your questions and insofar as I haven’t answered all your questions, I have not done so because they do not relate to my conduct as a Member of Parliament and I think that it would be unprofessional of me to say anything further on this matter as a member of the Bar whilst criminal proceedings are still ongoing at Southwark Crown Court – about which, and for the avoidance of any doubt, I repeat, I have at no time made any representations and whilst criminal investigations are still outstanding against James Ibori.
The questions I asked were:
1. It has been alleged that you met with the Nigerian President last year, and discussed with him the criminal investigation by the UK authorities into the financial affairs of the Nigerian politician James Ibori. Is this true?
2. If so, did you conduct this meeting in your capacity as an MP or a barrister?
3. If it is true that this meeting took place, what was the purpose of the meeting, which issues were discussed and which actions were agreed?
4. If it is true that the meeting took place, how long afterwards did you write your letter to David Miliband about the James Ibori case?
5. Do you deny suggesting in this letter that the criminal investigation into Mr Ibori might be detrimental to British interests?
6. The Oxford Mail reports that a solicitor who has acted for the Ibori family recently paid you £37,000 for 29 hours’ legal work between September and December last year. What did this work involve?
A few weeks ago Wikileaks published the 40-page court document in which the BBC laid out its defence against Trafigura’s libel claim, following this Newsnight report from May last year.
Trafigura had always insisted that the available scientific evidence vindicated them of blame for any deaths or serious injuries following the August 2006 Probo Koala toxic waste incident, and in December the BBC controversially withdrew their claims and agreed to pay damages. Yet Trafigura have never published the evidence which they say vindicates them, despite repeated requests.
Following the publication of the BBC document by Wikileaks, the blogger Calum Carr again contacted Trafigura to request their side of the story, but again to no avail.
Calum and I have now obtained this document ourselves. Given today’s very promising news about the libel reform campaign, we felt that this was a good moment to put the information out into the public domain, so that people can form their own view on this contentious issue.
Obtaining an electronic copy of this document has been an interesting process in itself. To do this, I had to:
1. Go to the High Court in person
2. Make a formal request for a copy of the document (giving full personal details including my home address)
3. Wait several days
4. Phone the High Court to see if the copy was ready
5. Visit the High Court again in person
6. Pay a not-insignificant photocopying fee
7. Pick up the paper copy of the document
8. Take the copy to a specialist document scanning company to get it turned into a PDF
9. Pay another fee
10. Wait another few days, before receiving the PDF via email.
This is apparently standard procedure for getting hold of key UK court documents. One would almost have thought that the legal authorities did not actually want the British public to have ready access to documents which are, at least in theory, available to all of us by right…
We might compare the above process to the mechanism involved in, say, accessing the text of a Parliamentary Question or a Select Committee report, eg:
1. Visit the Parliament website
2. Type in a relevant search term
2. Download the information (for free).
For all the concerns we might have about the current workings of the Parliament, its processes currently seem a whole lot more open transparent than those of the judiciary. Apart from anything else, the requirement that one has to visit the High Court in person to access a public document seems inherently discriminatory to anyone living a significant distance from London.
If and when we get some real progress on libel reform, it seems to me that opening up the judiciary to at least the same levels of scrutiny we have for Parliament could be an important next step.
In the meantime, I would recommend that everyone take a look at this blog post from Will Jordan, which I believe is both fair comment, and self-evidently in the public interest.
It seems to me that the core issue here is, as Craig Murray also points out, the extent to which it is appropriate, in a modern democracy, for MPs to hold down second (and third, and fourth and fifth) jobs without creating serious conflicts of interest which threaten to compromise their independence as MPs.
Tony Baldry has been at pains to stress the extent to which his work as a barrister is distinct from his activities as an MP. And yet the website of his own legal chambers, One Essex Court (accessed and archived 6/3/10), seems to blur this distinction, stating that:
Recent Heads of Chambers include Sir Ivan Lawrence QC, a leading Conservative MP for over twenty years, and Parliamentary connections are maintained under One Essex Court’s current head Tony Baldry MP.
The question of whether or not individual MPs are currently “acting within the rules” is, to my mind, secondary to this much larger question of whether the rules, in their current form, are really doing an effective job of maintaining the robust independence we need from our Parliamentarians in order to sustain a healthy democracy.
As was often the case during the expenses scandal, we might happily accept at face value all of the public statements that Tony Baldry MP has made, yet still have grave concerns that the Parliamentary rules could permit the arrangement he describes.
And as with the expenses scandal, it is vital that members of the public are able to voice these concerns openly, without facing threats or intimidation.
As Chairman of the Conservative Human Rights Commission, Tony Baldry must surely be aware of the growing international concern around the use of UK libel law by super-rich claimants to deter critical reporting of serious public interest questions.
The debate around MPs’ second jobs – in which the controversy surrounding Tony Baldry is just one example – is clearly a public interest matter. Democracy depends on our freedom to scrutinise the conduct of our MPs, and question the rules they make for themselves.
England’s libel laws are unjust, against the public interest and internationally criticised – there is urgent need for reform.
Freedom to criticise and question, in strong terms and without malice, is the cornerstone of argument and debate, whether in scholarly journals, on websites, in newspapers or elsewhere. Our current libel laws inhibit debate and stifle free expression. They discourage writers from tackling important subjects and thereby deny us the right to read about them.
The law is so biased towards claimants and so hostile to writers that London has become known as the libel capital of the world. The rich and powerful bring cases to London on the flimsiest grounds (libel tourism), because they know that 90% of cases are won by claimants. Libel laws intended to protect individual reputation are being exploited to suppress fair comment and criticism.
The cost of a libel trial is often in excess of £1 million and 140 times more expensive than libel cases in mainland Europe; publishers (and individual journalists, authors, academics, performers and blog-writers) cannot risk such extortionate costs, which means that they are forced to back down, withdraw and apologise for material they believe is true, fair and important to the public.
The English PEN/Index on Censorship report has shown that there is an urgent need to amend the law to provide a stronger, wider and more accessible public interest defence. Sense About Science has shown that the threat of libel action leads to self-censorship in scientific and medical writing.
We the undersigned, in England and beyond, urge politicians to support a bill for major reforms of the English libel laws now, in the interests of fairness, the public interest and free speech.