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Throughout 1997, LM magazine has been fighting to defend itself and the right to free speech against libel writs and gagging orders issued by ITN. As the year ends, the stakes in this battle are rising - as is the level of support for LM's stand against Britain's censorship-for-hire libel laws.

The libel case centres on the article 'The Picture that Fooled the World' by German journalist Thomas Deichmann, published in our February 1997 issue, which raised embarrassing questions about ITN's award-winning reports from a Bosnian Serb-run camp.

At the end of January ITN demanded that we pulp every copy of the offending magazine, apologise and pay damages. When we declined to do so, they issued writs for libel against LM editor Mick Hume and publisher Helene Guldberg. For the rest of the year, the magazine has been embroiled in a costly legal battle that puts the future existence of LM at risk. But the consequences do not stop there.

In July ITN levelled a new charge against LM, accusing the magazine of being 'actuated by malice'. By introducing this charge ITN is trying to claim that the magazine had an 'improper motive' for publishing Thomas Deichmann's article. According to ITN and their lawyers, LM's improper motive was politics. In the lengthy legal document issued in July, ITN sets out what it believes to be LM's political outlook, and argues that such a political approach must necessarily mean that LM was motivated by malice when it published the article

The fact that ITN's charge is based on a risible caricature of LM's political outlook is not the real issue here. Regardless of that, the charge of 'express malice' has serious implications both for LM's case and for the broader right to freedom of speech in Britain.

As far as the case is concerned, if ITN can prove that LM had an improper motive for publishing the article they can defeat any defence of 'fair comment'. The law deems that comments from a 'maliciously' motivated individual can no longer be considered 'fair' or reasonable, regardless of the facts. If accepted in court, the charge of malice also attracts aggravated (ie, huge) damages. So if LM's editor and publisher do not go bust trying get the case to court, they surely will if this charge is successful.

This unusual use of malice in a libel case could also set a dangerous precedent for further restricting free speech. ITN makes the extraordinary claim that the political views expressed in LM themselves constitute malice. As a result they are saying that LM should no longer have the right to pass comment on a matter of great public interest. If ITN are successful in this it will be a very serious attack upon free speech. It could mean that only people who hold 'respectable' political views can comment freely. Any dissident view could be branded as an outlaw opinion under the extended libel law. The right to free speech would become meaningless.

This is why our small magazine, with its shoestring resources, has been prepared to risk ruin by standing up to a mega-corporation like ITN. There are important principles involved which symbolise what LM is all about, and on which we are not willing to compromise.

Most importantly, LM stands for freedom of speech and a free press. We insist upon our right - and indeed anybody else's right - to report the truth as we understand it without fear of offending public opinion or upsetting powerful interests. It is not for ITN, the government, the courts or any other body to dictate what facts and arguments we can and cannot make available to our readers.

Those who dislike what LM says have the right to ignore it or to argue against it. They should not have the right to silence it, or to buy immunity from criticism through the courts.

There is now a more pressing need than ever to make a stand for the right to free speech. We live in an age when the New Labour government punishes its own MPs and MEPs for expressing an 'off-message' opinion on anything, and when hardly a week passes without a call for some pictures, books, films or political opinions to be banned.

A repressive code of moral correctness dominates much of public discussion today, dictating that those views deemed 'extreme' or 'offensive' by the self-appointed guardians of the nation's ethics should not be heard at all. Such a not-in-front-of-the-children attitude to public discussion should be an anathema to anybody interested in freedom and democratic debate. That is why LM is jointly hosting, with the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, a conference on Free Speech Wars in February (see p19 for details).

LM magazine now finds itself facing a life-and-death legal case because it spoke out on a taboo subject and offended the new etiquette of you-cannot-say-that-here. So long as LM survives, it will continue to raise a critical voice, to say what others will not, and to stand up for the freedom to think for ourselves and to speak our minds. To do that, we need all of the help we can get.

As the year has gone on, LM has gathered more support from all sorts of quarters for its battle with ITN's libel writs. The campaign will continue into 1998, and for however long it takes us to get a result. If you want to take a stand for free speech, get in touch with the LM libel appeal, The Off the Fence Fund.

Now our fight for free speech goes online with the launch of the new LM v ITN website

This campaign website contains everything you want to know about the libel case, including:

  • The offending LM article, Thomas Deichmann's 'The Picture that Fooled the World', and all subsequent LM coverage of the issues
  • All of the unpublished legal documents and correspondence that set out the case for the plaintiffs and the defendants
  • Every example of the heated public debate around the case and the broader issues, taken from the British and foreign media
  • Plus a chance for you to join in the debate and get involved with the campaign

This article first appeared in LM 106

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