Writers of the world, beware. A new threat to our freedom of speech is looming and, for once, I am not inveighing against the Official Secrets Act.
How did this whole mess begin? It turned out that someone in the Middle East could take exception to a book written and published about them in the USA. US law, somewhat surprisingly considering its current parlous state, provided no route to sue. However, some bright legal spark decided that the UK courts could be used for redress, provided the offending book had been sold in the UK – even if only a handful of second-hand books had been sold over Amazon.co.uk – and Mr Justice Eady helped the process along magnificently.
And so was born the concept of "libel tourism". Satirical current affairs magazine Private Eye has long been campaigning against this, other UK news outlets gradually followed suit, and the UK government is finally taking steps to rein in these egregious, if lucrative, legal practices.
But, hey, that's precisely when your offshore crown dependencies, otherwise known as British tax havens, come into their own. The UK has for years turned a blind eye to the dubious financial practices of these islands, the most geographically convenient being the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, where the attitude to self-regulation makes the practices of the Square Mile look positively Vestal.
Now it appears that Guernsey is looking to become a hub of another lucrative offshore practice: libel tourism.
Guernsey has its own parliament – the States – and can make its own laws. So as the libel door closes on the UK mainland, a firm of offshore tax lawyers has identified a wonderful business opportunity.
Jason Romer is the managing partner and intellectual property specialist at the large "wealth management" legal firm Collas Crill. According to his firm's website, he also, coincidentally, sits on the island's Commercial IP Steering Group and the Drafting Sub-Committee, and is thus conveniently on hand to steer the new legislation through the States.
Also coincidentally, he appears to be an enthusiastic advocate of Eady's infamous "super-injunction" regime which has had such a chillingly expensive effect on the British media in the last decade.
So, if this law is passed, anyone, anywhere around the world will be able (if they can afford it) to register their "image rights" in Guernsey. These rights can even last indefinitely after the original owner's death.
This means that anyone, anywhere, who feels that their "image" has been inappropriately reproduced/copied/pirated – the correct legal terminology is hazy – can then sue through the Guernsey courts for redress. This could potentially be a powerful new global tool for the suppression of free speech. As public outcry swells internationally against the US IP laws, SOPA and PIPA, and across Europe against the utterly undemocratic ACTA, this new law is a giant leap precisely in the wrong direction.
Guernsey, my island of birth, has changed out of all recognition over the last thirty years. Ever since the 1980s infestation of offshore bankers and trust fund lawyers, it has been tarmac-ed over by greed and social division. Before then it was proud of its egalitarianism, Norman-French heritage, beautifully anachronistic pace of life, and an economy based on tomatoes and tourism.
Now, if this law is passed, it will be known for its economy based on rotten financial apples and offshore libel tourism.
I just wanted to get that out of my system now – while I can still freely express my thoughts and before the island can sue me for damaging its "image rights"….