The Himsworths Legal bimonthly – September 2015Posted on
Pity poor Paula’s Parliamentary Privilege pasting
At the moment Jesse Norman MP uttered these words ….
“When you hear that the London Marathon, potentially the winners or medalists at the London Marathon, potentially British athletes, are under suspicion for very high levels of blood doping….how do you feel about that?”
…. legendary athlete Paula Radcliffe was thrown into a reputational crisis and her career achievements brought into question.
The words clearly implicated Radcliffe when you consider that she is the only non-disabled British winner of the London marathon since 1996. She has been vehement in her denial of any suggestion of doping, so why can’t she sue the MP or the newspapers who repeated the claims? The answer is simple and immovable – Parliamentary Privilege.
Parliamentary Privilege is a cloak which protects all comments and claims before parliament. The rationale is that MPs, as elected representatives, must be free to raise any matter in Parliament on behalf of the electorate without being deterred by fear of criminal or civil liability, even if it is to the detriment of other individuals. This has long since been the case (since the Bill of Rights of 1689).
The same applies to other proceedings, most notably court proceedings. We have been asked these familiar questions before by clients: “Might I get sued for libel if I allege that in my witness statement?”, “Can I sue him for what he said in his Claim Form?” The answer to both is “no”, provided that the witness statement or claim form is shared with the parties to the proceedings and the court only. Parties to legal proceedings receive immunity from libel claims for statements made in court and in their evidence and pleadings. There are consequences for those lying to the court of course (notably Contempt of Court and perjury) but suing for libel over things said in court is not an option.
There is a great inequity at times where the privilege in court or parliamentary proceedings are abused. A fairly recent example came when John Hemming MP used parliamentary privilege to name a sportsman who had obtained an anonymised injunction. He justified his “naming and shaming” by claiming that the sportsman planned to take legal action against “about 75,000 Twitter users”. This was, of course, nonsense. The sportsman had not threatened legal action against any Twitter users.
As to the newspapers who gleefully reported Jesse Norman MP’s comments, they have a “qualified” privilege in reporting matters which take place in parliament (or indeed in court). Provided they report matters in a “fair and accurate” way, then they are protected from libel suits. The reporting is not always fair and accurate and we have successfully challenged newspapers in this regard before, but the protection afforded is significant. Paula Radcliffe has had no choice but to go on the defensive, challenging the claims and giving interviews.
Unfortunately for her Mr Norman MP left her with little option.
Going viral: why its not just young sportsmen and women who need education on social media etiquette
Part of our work with clients, particularly within sport, involves educating teenaged boys and girls on the risks inherent on social media and the consequences of mistakes.
One stark lesson to learn is how Google defines a modern reputation and how years of good work (clippings about sporting achievements, carefully prepared social media profiles and profiles on sensible websites) can be undone in an instant by a media crisis.
The tabloid media excel in pointing out the mistakes, embarrassments and viral superstardom of the young but it’s wrong to assume that social media naivety is the preserve of the digital native generation. How about a 57 year old solicitor and partner at a London law firm?
Inexplicably (and rather creepily) a male partner in intellectual property at a London law firm sent a message on LinkedIn to a 27 year old female barrister which commenced as follows: “I appreciate that this is probably horrendously politically incorrect but that is a stunning picture !!!” before concluding “Always interest [sic] to understant [sic] people’s skills and how we might work together”. You can read more about the story here.
Unpleasant? Yes. Stupid? Yes. Sexist? Certainly. Reputation ruining? It certainly was after the barrister took an image of the message and put it on her Twitter page.
The response to the story was explosive with the barrister who was on the receiving end of the message, and publicly shamed the solicitor, coming in for reams of awful online abuse and vicious treatment from the Daily Mail (who described her as a “feminazi”). The effect of the Google reputation of both individuals was predictable. The solicitor in question has been in practice for 25 years, and no doubt has had considerable professional success, however, 90% of his opening Google results are now all about his unpleasant message. His online footprint has been obliterated and then, right on cue the MailOnline do what the MailOnline do: “The lawyer who offended a young female barrister after saying her LinkedIn profile picture was ‘stunning’ used social media to call his own daughter ‘hot’, MailOnline can reveal today …”. It’s all collateral damage as the friends and family of the solicitor (and of course the barrister) have their social media pored over by journalists looking for something, anything, which would add more salacious and embarrassing detail to this very depressing modern tale.