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Daniel Thwaites | Sticks and stones and libel

Published:Sunday | June 12, 2016 | 6:00 AM

It's a week of great sadness at The Gleaner with the loss of Glenroy Sinclair and Gary Spaulding. People have been tendering well-deserved tributes and accolades to these two professionals, including our prime minister, who visited the Old Lady of North Street.

It was decent of Mr Holness, and also solidly earned good PR. Andrew's communication is on fleek! I encourage you to read Andrew's touching notes to Glenroy and Gary, left in the condolence book at The Gleaner.

However, I couldn't help but wonder if the fact that Andrew is suing TVJ, which is owned by RJR, which is recently married to The Gleaner, came up off camera. I mean, that coulda been, shoulda been ... a little awkward? Remember that? Andrew is squaring off in court against the country's largest media entity.

That's because libel, meant to shield a man's reputation, can as easily be a sword, aimed at the heart of investigative journalism. And that, by the way, explains the eerie silence about the '18 Degrees North' programme. Who knows what is true?

It is a general law of nature that where men compete with each other for power, status, territory, and resources, the result is war, or war by other means: politics. And now with our condom-wearing cops making actual physical assassination slightly more difficult to accomplish, reputational murder is the current preferred weapon of choice.

Consider, for example, that if you were to believe everything that you've heard about the 63 parliamentarians, you would be forced to believe that there isn't a heterosexual man or woman in the House, that all are pathological liars, and that only about half-dozen aren't serial child and goat molesters.

Me, I never believe the reckless character assassination of our leaders. Well, at least not all of the accusations. Some of it just can't be true. Think about it: the limping agricultural sector just doesn't produce that much local goat.

But did you know the law punishes anyone who repeats a defamatory statement with the same severity as one who originated it? I learnt that lesson right here at The Gleaner when the great JLP stalwart Percival Broderick first sued me. In retrospect, I had indeed libelled him, though certainly without malice.

I had written a column, a hilariously whimsical masterstroke that I, and I alone, remember. It had to do with delegates flinging rock stones after each other in Clarendon. It was, y'know, a typical political meeting. Of course, nobody was charged for pelting rocks.

My commentary was based on a newspaper report that erroneously identified Percy's brother Laurie as him, Percy. And I survived that suit only because Percival passed away, though I like to think that if we had met on the battlefield of the courtroom, I may have charmed him into releasing me on my own recognisance without too harsh of a physical beating, perhaps with a stern warning and on a promise of good future behaviour. Well, that was my plan, which isn't much of a defence.

 

STONES OVER WORDS

 

That's Jamaica for you: It's more dangerous, legally speaking, to fling some words, or do some proper reporting, than to throw actual physical rock stones.

I've learnt my lesson! If I should develop beef with anyone, my current plan is to just fling some river stones rather than speak my mind. After all, my society has sent me the signal that it prefers it that way. The police, in the meanwhile, will be fitting on condoms.

Anyway, years later at a friend's wedding in Barbados, I met Percival's lovely sister and recounted to her how I came to be sued by one of her brothers when I probably ought to have been sued by a different one. According to my retelling, naturally, it was all The Gleaner's fault, but truthfully, I still felt pretty crummy about it.

It felt like a confession, and if I had been instructed to kneel I would have done so without a murmur. Thankfully, she was kind enough to offer absolution, this time on the correct brother's behalf. Have mercy Percy!

Well, Andrew's suit also gives me an excuse to talk about another famous defamation case, and perhaps offer it as a word to the wise. The moral of the story is that suing for defamation can backfire.

Oscar Wilde, the aesthete, eccentric, and dandy, had a "friend", Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father, John Douglas, The Marquess of Queensberry, wasn't happy at all about it. The Marquess determined to express his disgust in a note. It said: "To Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite."

Nowadays, people are largely unsympathetic to the Marquess for dismantling the genius Wilde. But the Marquess was already suffering London's gossip about another son, Francis, who had "befriended" the youthful Lord Roseberry, England's future prime minister. Politics and debauchery are also old "friends".

So when Alfred turned up with Wilde, 16 years his senior, and a decision to drop out of university - cho man! - you can imagine de bredda's vexation.

Wilde got The Marquess' note, and then, undoubtedly enraged by the half-literate aristocrat's misspelling, vowed litigation. It was a great plan except for the inconvenience that Wilde was, in fact, a somdomite.

Wilde's distinguished lawyer, Edward Clarke, QC, cautioned him to forgo suit unless "there is not and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you".

Wilde swore innocence. Suit commenced. Then The Marquess filed a plea of justification identifying ten male witnesses. The literary giant ended up breaking rocks in prison. That's right! More rocks.

Let's not forget that defamation is a sport of the rich and famous, and in the real Jamaica, if a man says something you don't like, you aren't likely to call the attorney. No, you either stab-up him backside, tell him bout him klaat, or fling two rock stones.

I make the point that self-help remains a residual tool not because I want Andrew to start flinging rocks or cussing klaat, even though, should he choose to do so, that would be hilarious. Rather, I can't see why he doesn't simply do like Julian, close off this rocky road, and sign the condolence book on the libel action.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.