Last year Britain passed a new defamation act that advocates hoped would “change the landscape of free speech” in the country. The law raised Britain’s previously very low standards for defamation and aimed to crack down on the practice of “libel tourism,” which had allowed the subjects of unflattering press to bring suits against publishers in Britain—even if neither of the parties was based in the country.
Over the years a number of individuals, including the late Russian billionaire Boris Berezovsky and Saudi businessman Khalid bin Mahfouz, had filed defamation suits in British courts over material published in the United States.
The standards may be tougher now, but it’s still apparently difficult to publish accusations against powerful individuals within Britain.
Cambridge University Press recently declined to publish a book by Karen Dawisha, a professor at Miami University of Ohio and author of several books on Russia, which alleges that President Vladimir Putin and some of his associates were involved in illegal financial activity during the 1990s.
The full correspondence between Dawisha and the publisher is featured on Edward Lucas’ blog at the Economist. While the publishing house didn’t cast doubt on Dawish’s claims, it did note that in England, “a libel claimant can require the writer and publisher to prove truth, which in the case of your book, would be extremely difficult to do.”
They claim that if a suit were brought by one of the figures named in the book, “even if the Press was ultimately successful in defending such a lawsuit, the disruption and expense would be more than we could afford, given our charitable and academic mission.”
The book will likely eventually be published in the U.S., and will probably get even more attention given the “pre-emptive bookburning,” as Dawisha described it, that it was subjected to in Britain.
As for the publisher, their decision seems fairly reasonable given the potential consequences it were facing. The problem is with laws that seem to still be having the “chilling effect” that last year’s reforms were designed to eliminate.