Litigiously minded cranks are like London buses. I hadn't heard from any for well over a year. Then quite suddenly two turned up on the same day this week. Mind you, the ones who write to me hardly conform to the genuinely serious threat to free expression identified by Nick Cohen in his Observer column this week: "Bullies are always threatening to sue bloggers; few have the resources to fight a libel action and bow to their demands." The awe that my own would-be complainants inspire in me derives only from the undeniable grandiloquence of their incapability.
The first this week is one Joseph Ball, of whom I wrote here. Ball believes that Mao and Stalin have been unfairly maligned by us bourgeois commentators. He insists: "Like Mao, the negative features of [Stalin's] rule have been greatly exaggerated. The successes have been ignored."
Mr Ball immediately wrote to me under the drearily familiar heading (of which more below) "re: libellous comments concerning myself". He writes, at great length, that he is "absolutely enraged" to read my post:
You are clearly attempting to compare me to the Nazis and to David Irving-the holocaust denier whose work you discuss on your blog. It is perfectly obvious that you are only making these libellous statements against myself because you are aware I am a communist and hence will be reluctant to use capitalist courts to sue. I don't have the luxury that you posess of libelling anyone I happen to disagree with. When I make comments about living figures I have to make damn sure I can back up what I am saying rather than just publishing a pack of lies.
Before you published your libel did it ever occur to you to email me and ask me why I uphold Stalin and Mao and oppose the view they were as bad as the Nazis?
I replied more succinctly, giving the answer to Ball's question ("no"); the name and address of my legal representative; an invitation to write to my legal representative should Ball have a complaint; the information that my legal representative is one of the top libel lawyers in London, and has acted for me with complete success against two previous complaints that were devoid of merit; the assurance that I would vigorously contest any action, on grounds of fair comment on a matter of public interest; and due notice that if any costs were incurred by me as a result of Ball's behaviour, I would immediately make an application for them.
With commendable initiative, Ball has written back to deny that he ever had any intention of pursuing legal action, and to warn me that he intends publicly to defend himself against my allegations. He also has an undeniable perspicacity, as he accuses me of being uninterested in debating with him.
My second litigiously minded correspondent is the indefatigable Jonathan Burgess, mentioned here. He is outraged and hurt too. It is, after all, outrageous of me to have identified any racist connotation in his insistence that David Irving "could REALLY be on to something", or any partisanship on his part on behalf of David Irving. Mr Burgess's only concern is - seriously - with military history. The fact, established in a court of law, that what David Irving is REALLY ON TO is antisemitic, racist fakery is surely an irrelevant consideration.
What a shower. I have sent a similar reply to Burgess as I have to Ball. It's almost a relief to turn once more to Marisa Lorah of California, authoress of the becoming effusions about the witty and erudite David Irving. (I don't know this for sure, but I have a suspicion I can guess Ms Lorah's age to within, say, five years, and certainly to within ten.) Her line is speculation rather than threat. She writes:
I suspect you are a Jew because you detest people like David Irving and myself simply because we are proud of our heritage. I understand that David is mainly of British stock. I am German/Swiss. Is there anything wrong with being proud of who we are? If so, why? Unless you tell me otherwise, you are a Jew.
Yes, madam, there is indeed something wrong in being proud of what you are.
These are dismal matters, and I'm relieved to close the discussion. It's probably worth reiterating here, however - especially in view of a question I received from one reader who is very far from sympathising with David Irving - my policy about comments and emails on this blog. Any emails sent to me by readers are treated in confidence. If I wish to publish a reader's email, then I ask permission first. I generally even then do not identify my correspondent by name. If I do wish to add a correspondent's name (it's happened with, e.g., one of my readers who is a leading theoretical linguist, explaining to me Noam Chomsky's contributions to that field), then again I will ask permission. The exceptions to this rule of confidentiality are racist, abusive, otherwise crankish or threatening emails. In those cases, on the reasonable precedent set by Polly Toynbee, I reserve the right to publish the email, and the author's name and email address. (I wouldn't in any circumstances publish a physical address or phone number.) The correspondents I've quoted all fit at least two of the relevant categories.
I've nonetheless been fairly sparing in the past in applying the exception to my rule about reader confidentiality. As the issue of legal action concerning blogs is now quite a topical one, and I have recently been asked by a news programme about my minor experience in the field, I will return to the matter of the only time I have received a purported and admittedly unthreateningly incompetent writ for libel. I've never published the blizzard of emails sent to me last year by the blogger Neil Clark, author of - sticking to the theme of mass murderers - a piece entitled "Slobodan Milosevic, Prisoner of Conscience", and more recently of various laudatory comments about himself under false names on third-party websites. It may be of value to others of similar inclination if I set out that correspondence as well as the records of the case's peremptory conclusion. (The purported writ was immediately struck out by the court after my lawyers informed the presiding judge that the action constituted an abuse of process.) They should know that I do not remove material from this blog that in my opinion meets the criteria of, respectively, fair comment and justification.