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 issue is serious, but the personality concerned is not, and - while not exactly receiving effusive, or indeed any, thanks for this - I held back a few details of his behaviour when previously recounting the case. For the reasons stated in my earlier post, I do propose now to state the issue more fully. There is a problem, for your patience and for mine, in that Mr Clark's emails and letters threatening legal action were highly repetitive. This was largely because he kept asserting that I had one last chance to apologise publicly and delete the material from this blog that he found exceptionable, whereupon his stated deadline would pass and he would write again asserting that I had one last chance to apologise publicly and delete the material from this blog that he found exceptionable. I shall nonetheless give a representative sample of his urgings and a synopsis of the case.
Mr Clark's political opinions are not relevant to this case, but I record incidentally that he regards with equanimity and even a sense of justice the prospect of the sectarian murder of interpreters in Iraq who have been assisting British troops operating under a UN mandate. There is no necessary reason that a fanatic need also evince the characteristics that I shall now describe, but it is moderately pleasing when he does.
Almost two years ago, Mr Clark wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph (irrelevantly, a review of a book by me), whose content surprised me. I believed - and said to the newspaper's Books Editor, who behaved impeccably throughout the ensuing affair - that Mr Clark was an imaginative and proper choice for that task, but unfortunately he proved inadequate to it. I wrote a post on this blog pointing accurately to certain characteristics of the article - such as its addressing arguments that didn't appear in the book at all - that led me to question whether Mr Clark had read the book before reviewing it. More serious, Mr Clark had recounted as fact a plainly dubious claim - a factoid - concerning the Balkans War that was a staple of pro-Serb nationalist propaganda.
Mr Clark sent me an indignant note threatening legal action if I did not apologise to him. Here is that email, sent on 6 January 2006.
Dear Mr Kamm,
You have made a very serious allegation against me in print, namely that I did not read your book which I reviewed for the Daily Telegraph.
You have attempted, through the blogosphere and through a letter to the Books Editor of the Daily Telegraph to discredit me and to exert pressure on those who commission me.
I would like to inform you that unless you retract your allegation by 20th January, and place the following apology on your blog, I will have no option but to seek redress from the law. I will not allow this libel to stand. I already have two witnesses who are prepared to swear on oath that I did read your book and I can assure you that if this case does go to court, it is a dispute you will not win. If you do print the apology enclosed below, I undertake to let the matter rest and to take no further action.
'In the heat of reading a critical review of my book 'Anti-Totalitarianism' in the Daily Telegraph, I falsely accused the author of the review, Neil Clark of not reading my book. I would like to retract that claim and to apologise to Neil Clark for making such an allegation'.
I naturally declined to do what Mr Clark demanded, as my remarks were fair comment on a matter of public interest. I was willing to accommodate him to the extent, and only to the extent, of adding to my post the information that he had written to me insisting that he had read the book before reviewing it, and that as he had said this, then I believed him. I was not at this stage to know what Mr Clark's word was worth (about which, more below).
Yet Mr Clark's assertions were odd. I had drawn to the attention of the Telegraph the factoid in question. This was a claim that the late Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic had been an SS recruiter in WWII - a patently doubtful assertion given that he had been only 19 years old at the end of the war. I discovered that the newspaper's Books Editor, Sam Leith, had, before publication of the review, specifically asked Mr Clark for his source. Mr Clark had replied to Mr Leith that he was citing the "Institute of Strategic Studies Organisation". A reasonable person would assume (as I did, when I learned of this from Mr Leith) that this meant the famous International Institute for Strategic Studies, based in London. Yet I could find no trace of this claim in the IISS's output.
Eventually I realised that Mr Clark must have given false information - and so he had. His real source was an obscure right-wing American outfit called the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA). ISSA promulgates "Srebrenica denial": its research director, one Yossef Bodansky, maintains that the true number of dead in the Srebrenica massacre was not the established figure of around 8,000 but only a few hundred. It is not the same type of organisation as the scholarly and impartial IISS. Having made this discovery, I pointed it out to Mr Leith and posted it on this site. The fact that Mr Clark's conduct was due, I'm certain, to political ignorance rather than design does not soften the extraordinary character of the finding.
Mr Clark has never denied that my identification of his source was accurate. I do after all have the evidence of his emailed comments to the newspaper. Yet rather than inform his editor that he had imparted false information he preferred to try to cover it up by complaining of "malice" and "defamation" on my part. This was when the blizzard of emails began to swirl.
Here is a representative one, sent on 21 February 2006:
Dear Mr Kamm, You are persisting in a deliberate campaign to discredit me as a journalist. Unless you publish the following retraction and apology on your blog within seven days, I will be instructing my lawyer to initiate legal proceedings against you on 1st March for defamation.
A RETRACTION AND APOLOGY
'Since his review of my book 'Anti-Totalitarianism' appeared in the Daily Telegraph on 31st December 2005, I have made several allegations against the writer, Neil Clark. I now accept that these allegations were without foundation and would like to apologise unreservedly to Mr Clark'.
No such statement has ever appeared on this blog, of course, or ever will appear. I replied to Mr Clark, as I did in every case, saying that I had no intention of making comments about him that were untruthful but that I could not see that corrective action was required. Mr Clark wrote again on 8 March:
PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL
Dear Mr Kamm,
Thank you for your note of 3rd March.
As you do not seem prepared either to remove the original defamatory postings from your blog- or to post a suitable, mutually agreed apology, I have been left with no alternative but to initiate legal proceedings against you for defamation together with a claim for damages.
I will be commencing my action in the County Court on Friday morning, 10th March, providing you with a further 36 hours in which to reconsider your position.
Because I was certain of my facts and absolutely immovable concerning Mr Clark's threats, I had long before this stage retained the services of a leading City firm in the practice of libel law, Charles Russell LLP. It was completely obvious that Mr Clark's "lawyer", referenced in his message of 21 February but who never once put in an appearance in this case, was a fictitous personality. We knew this for three reasons. First, Mr Clark - in an earlier very long email - had announced that he had taken legal advice and recounted what that advice had been (unsurprisingly, it was supposedly that I had libelled Mr Clark). If there is one thing you don't do when you've taken legal advice it is to disclose the content of that advice. If you do, you are said to have waived privilege, i.e. the content of the advice received is no longer confidential to you and anyone can ask for a copy. Secondly, if you write "WITHOUT PREJUDICE" on a threat of legal action you demonstrably have no idea what the phrase means; it is not possible to threaten legal action "without prejudice". And thirdly, the County Court (i.e. a court that deals with small claims and most aspects of civil law) does not have jurisdiction to hear libel cases unless the defendant has given written consent beforehand.
What made this fabrication more significant was that Mr Clark had contacted The Guardian to announce that he was going to sue me and had told the same lie. You can see it here. I don't fault the newspaper for having been interested in the story: a serious legal claim against a blogger would have been newsworthy. Unfortunately for the reporter concerned, a case involving Mr Clark was never going to be of that type. (Two aspects of the report might strike you as peculiar. First, my non-commital statement about an entirely unmeritorious claim was deliberate, so as not to risk prejudicing the case. Secondly, the way Mr Clark is described will surprise you, but again I do not fault the reporter for a surfeit of generosity towards an interlocutor.) I commend the newspaper's prudence in having not reproduced this report in the print edition, but to have put it only on the Web. There it stands as testament to the most singular feature of this affair: Mr Clark lied directly to one newspaper, in order to cover up his misrepresentation of source material to another.
The denoument was swift once Mr Clark resolved to strike. He eventually issued a claim - written in a child-like hand, with crossings out, and with no lawyer in sight - at his local County Court. The "writ" didn't even state what the supposed libels were, but it demanded an apology, removal of the material complained of, and damages of up to £5000. I passed the purported writ with some embarrassment to one of the top libel lawyers in London to deal with. He sent Mr Clark a terse letter explaining that the claim was an abuse of the legal process. Immediately on receiving it, Mr Clark wrote to me in a rather different tone from anything that had preceded it: a chastened plea begging "respectfully" that I acquiesce in his abuse of process and allow him to continue wasting my time and money. Oddly he omitted to explain why this course would be of any benefit to me. I passed the letter to my lawyer, who wrote another terse letter to Mr Clark explaining how libel law worked.
The presiding judge immediately struck out Mr Clark's claim on application from my lawyers, and I have never since received a communication from Mr Clark. As my friend Stephen Pollard has noted, Mr Clark has however adopted the idiosyncratic practice of inventing female identities. Under these names, Mr Clark has posted comments on other web sites in order to praise himself in the third person and damn me and Stephen. When pressed on the matter, the lady sock puppets indignantly deny being Neil Clark until the lie is no longer sustainable. I am no admirer of Wikipedia, but I do admire a toughminded Wikipedia administrator who briskly exposed Mr Clark for faking his own entry (since deleted on the grounds that, I fear, he isn't notable enough for an encyclopedia with only 7.5 million entries) by pretending to be a girl and writing encomia to himself.
From this account, I have, in deference to his dignity, held back the letter Mr Clark sent me attempting to bypass my lawyers and pleading with me to let him carry on with his waste of court time. I deliberately never issued a claim for costs - which were not trivial - against Mr Clark for his abuse of the legal process, but bore them myself so as to impress upon him that my only wish in the affair was to insist on my right to fair comment. But Mr Clark has not been gracious in defeat, and I consider it still a matter of public interest to draw attention to his quality of output and standards of probity. He not only tried to cover up, by bizarrely inept legal threats, a serious inaccuracy to a newspaper, and one that I am glad to have exposed. He also lied on third-party web sites, including a supposed reference site, and he lied directly to a Guardian journalist. These are points you may wish to recall if ever reading - let alone ever commissioning - anything by Mr Clark in future.
I have, since this affair, learned that Mr Clark indeed finds it hard to stop himself from crying "libel" when he encounters criticism. (Apparently, one contributor to the comments boxes at Harry's Place described Mr Clark as a "a charlatan and a bounder", and was surprised to receive from Mr Clark in return an indignant email complaining that the remarks were libellous.) Libel has a specific meaning in English law. Fair comment is a defence, and justification (i.e. the defendant can demonstrate that the statements are true) is a complete defence in all cases, bar one very unusual circumstance that isn't relevant here. Another word I'm aware Mr Clark resorts to sooner than acknowledge criticism is "malice". As with his use of the phrase "without prejudice", he appears to have heard of the odd legal term without ever having inquired what it means. "Malice", in the legal sense, does not bear the common meaning of the term, concerning someone's motives. It means that a defendant does not have an honest belief in the opinions expressed. Naturally, I not only believe every part of this post but can prove every part of it as well, as Mr Clark is aware.
I have quoted only a few of Mr Clark's threatening emails, but I have quoted them fully and with reason. I hope it is a useful record to others, and I do not mean it ironically when I say that I hope it is helpful to Mr Clark.