Matthew Taylor Guest blog: John Moores University must answer questions about its dropped libel case over MP's Libya remarks
Libel proceedings are not something you begin lightly.
Firstly, the legal costs aren't cheap: yours, which you might get back if you win; and the other side's, which you might have to pay even if you do (as Bruce Grobbelaar famously discovered).
And then there's the damage to your reputation -i f you thought that was damaged before, just wait people discover you're threatening to sue.
These are things that Liverpool John Moores University must have considered before resorting to legal threats over criticism of its relationship with the Libyan government. That threat was all the more serious given its target: Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, who had been asking Parliamentary questions about the financial links between various British universities and Colonel Gaddafi's regime.
On 3 March, Halfon condemned LJMU's relationship with Libya in Parliament, comparing it to appeasement in the 1930s. LJMU's response was an angry statement, insisting that most of its Libyan projects had never progressed, and pointing out that it had so far received only £14,000, all for training doctors.
A week later, after more questions in Parliament and a posting on Halfon's blog, his solicitors announced that LJMU had threatened to sue for libel.
But earlier today, Halfon's solicitors announced that LJMU had withdrawn their threat.
So what's changed? LJMU couldn't actually sue over statements made in Parliament (under Parliamentary privilege); their threat seems appears to have related instead that blog post on March 10. They must have taken advice on that in March, and must presumably have been advised there was a reasonable prospect of success. Yet, ten weeks later, having arguably damaged the University's reputation, the matter is dropped.
It's not clear what LJMU hoped to achieve, but what it did achieve was a great deal of publicity for Halfon's campaign. It's the phenomenon known as the "Streisand Effect": trying to suppress information actually publicizes it. This isn't rocket science; it's a simple, well understood principle in PR. The University must have known this was a risk.
What makes this bizarre is that Halfon's prime focus was never LJMU, but the London School of Economics (where one of Gaddafi's sons studied). He only mentioned LJMU in Parliament by name once.
This leaves important questions for LJMU to answer.
- Who authorized the threat of legal action?
- How much has been spent on legal fees?
- Who authorized that expenditure?
- What advice was given to the University in March about the prospects of successfully suing for libel?
- What has changed in the period since then, which led the University to withdraw the threat of legal action?
- Who took the decision to withdraw the threat?
University funding is being slashed; LJMU is no exception. It will reportedly cut £9M from its undergraduate budget this year alone. In these circumstances, its student and staff may want to question the decision to spend money making legal threats against MPs who criticize it.