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Scandalum magnatum

From Media Law by Geoffrey Robertson, Q.C. and Andrew Nicol, Q.C., I quote:

The arcane offence of scandalum magnatum was created by a statute of 1275 designed to protect “the great men of the realm” against discomfiture from stories that might arouse the people against them. The purpose of criminal libel was to prevent loss of confidence in government. It was, essentially, a public order offence, and since true stories were more likely to result in breaches of the peace, it spawned the aphorism “The greater the truth, the greater the libel.” Overtly political prosecutions were brought in its name, against the likes of John Wilkes, Tom Paine and the Dean of St Asaph. Truth is not a defence, unless the defendant can convince a jury that publication is for the public benefit. The burden of proof lies on the defendant, who may be convicted even though he or she honestly believed, on reasonable grounds, that what was published was true and a matter of public interest.

Some of our readers are learned in the law of the land. I appeal to you, find a way to bring a prosecution against divers great men of the realm, to whit David William Donald Cameron and Daniel Grian Alexander. Should not the law apply equally to great and small? Find grounds to bring suit against Cameron and Alexander for their criminal libel against James Anthony Patrick Carr, against whom said Cameron and Alexander, abusing their office, did arouse the fury of the mob despite Carr having broken no law.

21 comments to Scandalum magnatum

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Should not the law apply equally to great and small?

    Here in the US we have two informal constitutional provisions which are relevant to that question: the Important People Clause (self explanatory) and the Zeroth Amendment, reading in its entirety “The provisions of this Constitution shall not be used to impede governing.”

    If you guys had a written constitution you wouldn’t have to cheat, you could just interpret.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Caustic. Very caustic. :-(

  • Latinists (I’m not one) will have noticed I misspelled my Latin and hence misquoted Messrs Robertson and Nicol in the first version of this post. Venia vostra.

    PersonfromPorlock, I expect that when deeper study is made of the Constitution in a progressive spirit, it will emerge that the Important People Clause and the Zeroth amendment can and must be combined. “The provisions of this Constitution shall not be used to impede Important People”

  • @PersonFromPorlock:

    The Constitution of the United States of America has a whole bunch of things in it about protecting the freedom and liberty of the people.

    Equally, various departments of the government seem to take pleasure in wiping their collective arses with it (TSA, BATF, CIA, FBI, NSA, DoD, etc.)

    So here’s a little guide for you Matthew 7:3


    And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

  • as anyne who reads my blog surely knows I am no homophobe but I beg an indulgence.

    Is this protection of “important people” the basis in anyway of the D-notice a few years back on the discussion of Peter Mandelson’s sexuality. Not that anyone in the developed world didn’t know he was gay or (largely) give two hoots apart from his flagrant abuse of the immigration system. I mean Mandy wasn’t the only person with an unmarried boyfriend or girlfriend who wanted an extension on a student visa. why his Brazilian but not my American. Was it because he was an “important person”?

  • Joseph Sobran:
    ( Click, then see the link at the upper right )

    “Democracy has proved only that the best way to gain power over people is to assure the people that they are ruling themselves. Once they believe that, they make wonderfully submissive slaves.”

  • Nick M,

    Quite. Not that I favour D-notices, and Mr Mandelson’s being a cabinet minister complicates the issue, but the mention of public disclosure of sexuality brings to the fore the principles at stake, and clarifies why I find David Cameron’s and Danny Alexander’s behaviour towards Jimmy Carr so disgraceful.

    How rightly horrified people would be if a prime minister were to publicly “name and shame” someone for sexual behaviour that he, the prime minister, found “morally repugnant” but which was not illegal. For the first couple of decades after its decriminalisation in 1967 homosexuality would have fallen in that category in the opinion of most British adults. Adultery still does fall into that category. I’m pretty sure Cameron claims to find adultery morally repugnant, so let’s hear his reasons for not making public denunciations of all the adulterous celebs out there. And also denouncing adulterous cabinet ministers and Tory donors, of course. If he actually would recoil from this course (and to be fair, he probably would) then he ought to be able to understand what is wrong with the man given the highest power in the land publicly denouncing as immoral the legal financial behaviour of a named individual.

    Rant over. Correction, rant not over. The Times‘s behaviour of this has been disgusting, too. By all means write features denouncing tax avoidance -personally I think tax avoidance is morally neutral at worst, and more often good, but I recognise that opinions differ – and I would say that using already public sources (e.g. company accounts) to expose the behaviour of individuals to public hostility is within the rights of a free press even when my sympathies are with the person exposed. One citizen slagging off another citizen is a very different thing from the prime minister slagging off a citizen. But the witchunting smirk of the Times‘s coverage makes me sick. Celebrity exposés for the people who think they are above celebrity exposés. And the witchunting howl of the Guardian‘s coverage – scrambling like hyenas for the leftover scraps from the Times‘s kill make me even more sick. These are all the same people who were so high minded about the press intrusions into privacy cited at the Levenson enquiry.

  • Alisa

    then he ought to be able to understand what is
    wrong with the man given the highest power in the land publicly denouncing as immoral the legal financial behaviour of a named individual.

    The difference between tax avoidance and sexuality is that most of the public probably thonk that the later should not be legal. Cameron probably agrees or is just playing into the public’s sentiment.

  • Alisa

    Correction: The difference between tax avoidance and
    homosexuality is that most of the public probably think that the *former* should not be legal. Damn iPhone…

  • My ferocious need to rant still unsatisfied, I am going to put a slightly modified version of my comment of 08:43 up as a post.

    Alisa, I’d be very surprised to learn that most of the British public nowadays thought that either homosexuality or adultery should be illegal.

  • Alisa

    Natalie, I totally messed up my comment: what I meant was that they think that tax avoidance should be illegal, as opposed to either homosexuality or adultery.

  • Alisa, I have mixed up “latter” and “former” more times than the continuity editor of Plan 9 From Outer Space. I was, however, once capable of using the French terms celui-ci and celui-là without looking up which was which, but I’ve forgotten since.

    General comment: I’ve put up my second Jimmy Carr post, an expanded version of a comment I made in this thread. Though the new post looks at this affair from the angle of abuse of office, I would still like to know from any lawyers reading whether the specific hope I expressed half-seriously in this post, namely that Carr could do Cameron for criminal libel, has any basis. OK, I do realise that the answer to that is almost certainly “dream on”, but what about ordinary rather than criminal libel?

  • Natalie,
    there is sitting on the shelves a new piece of legislation which has not been tested yet.

    From where I’m sat it’s not only the politicians that are delinquent and behaving badly – it’s our UK civil servants which is more problematic to my mind.

    The Act concerned is The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (pdf) – you can search it easily for key words in Adobe Reader – it ties in with and gives statutory force to The Civil Servant’s Code of Conduct..

    The actual Civil Servant’s Code itself contains a statutory duty to implement objectivity – i.e. to base policy advice and strategy where possible on authoritative, proven, repeatable, testable facts.

    The scope of the persons affected and required to conform is set out unequivocally in Part 1 – starting out on Page 5. There’s exclusions MI5/MI6 & persons working wholly outside the United Kingdom – UK civil service structure has been deliberately muddled for the purpose of fiefdom building – but the muddling has been I think largely very amateur – and could easily melt away if tested.

    Page 7 starts the Codes of Conduct section –

    Page 8
    Section 5.8 mentions “those civil servants who are covered by the code” without defining them beyond the definition offered in Section 1 = NO exclusions it would seem ……….

    Section 7.4 is quite explicit about behaviour…

    The Act refers to the actual published Civil Servants Code in multiple places and the statutory duties enshrined therein…

    TPTB know there’s a deep problem with accountability in the Balkanised UK state apparatus and this Act is an attempt to deal with that and impose some standards on an out of control bureaucracy My interpretation – granted – but why else do it?.

    So – it’s a legally enfoceable duty to behave rationally (and a lot more – read the civil servants code) but the remedies and sanctions are ill defined – shame – hanging’s obviously too quick ….

    I may well be useless / unenforceable redundant law but boy, oh boy am I itching to test it.

  • Very interesting, TomO, though your first link did not work for me. I found this one instead.

    Skim-reading, I see both good and bad possibilities in this Act (“a duty to behave rationally” could be turned to sinister ends if oppressive forces get to define what is rational) but you have set me thinking.

  • I agree that definitions are open to interpretation and would also point out that as a remedy the Act is seemingly quite toothless – the sanctions for wandering off the prescribed path are ill defined.

    Nonetheless, it is possibly a tool for sending a wake-up message that “you ARE NOT unaccountable for your actions” or, in an ideal world actually nailing some of the peculating power drunk halfwits that are running amok in our public institutions.

    There some interest in wheeling this out and lighting the touchpaper in the areas of public health, climate change and general purpose administrative delinquency. Email me for more.

  • Paul Marks

    A good idea Natalie.

    Mr Cameron has spread a story about an individual – with the express purpose of inciting hatred against that individual.

    I believe that such an action should be legal.

    But the law of England and Wales says it is not legal.

    So Mr Cameron should be prosecuted for criminal libel.

  • Alisa

    I believe that such an action should be legal.

    Following the points Natalie made here, I would differ even on that: it should be legal, unless it was done by the head of state who by definition has control of the agencies in charge of activities related to the actions (or inactions) by the said individual citizen – when said actions were perfectly legal, however immoral they may be seen by some people or even most people.

  • Hmm

    Ah Natalie : “The provisions of this Constitution shall not be used to impede Important People”… such wonderful words.

    If I’m not mistaken I believe they are the opening words to the “Constitution of the Enlightened States of Privilege” ?

  • Stephen Willmer

    I’m pretty sure the DPP can forcibly take over and quash private prosecutions he regards as vexatious.

  • Stephen Willmer @12:04

    If private prosecution as the only way to progress – CPS have the right in law to take over a case “in the public interest”.

    It’s one of the problematic parts of getting anywhere with The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 I kited earlier – since if the case is serious enough to warrant intervention – the prosecuting lawyers would be Civil Servants and hence prosecuting their “own people” – some Sir Humphrey would definitely frown upon..

    I don’t know what the statistics are for private prosecutions taken over by CPS – but it’s not unreasonable to suspect that it’s an effective tactic to hoof uncomfortable issues well out of sight into very long grass.

  • Stephen Willmer

    TomO, indeed.