Last year, a member of the public claimed on the Sunday Herald’s online messageboard that George Robertson, former NATO secretary, was involved in a cover-up over the Dunblane massacre. This allegation was untrue and defamatory; as soon as Lord Robertson brought the post to the editor’s attention he deleted it and apologised.
Any reasonable person would have left it there – but being unpleasantly litigious, Lord Robertson didn’t. Instead, he sued the newspaper for libel, and won a five-figure sum in damages.
The UK’s libel laws are extremely stupid, for two reasons. The first is that their bias in the plaintiff’s favour means that the main beneficiaries are often crooks, conmen, cheats and liars; the second is that they spread liability far too far (retailers and distributors can be held liable for libels printed in publications that they sell).
Lord Robertson clearly doesn’t fall into any of the former categories, but it’s equally clear that his case falls into the latter. The Herald took all reasonable steps to remove the libel once it was printed, and he would have suffered no damage to his reputation had he accepted the newspaper’s apology.
While I can see that enough money to buy a house (in Scotland at least) for no work would be a pleasant thing to receive, and that Lord Robertson’s actions are in no way unlawful, his actions would appear mercenary and unnecessary in anyone. Since we hold public servants to higher standards than regular citizens, this makes matters significantly worse.