LabourNet and libel

This was written on 24 April before LabourNet had carried out its own investigation into the allegations against Biwater. We have now issued our first report concerning these allegations, British Transnational Biwater: Aid... Arms... Gags. - Chris Bailey

During the last month LabourNet has had to face a number of major problems. The timing of these problems has coincided with the attack on the Australian dockers and has restricted our ability to cover this vitally important fight.

First of all the hacking of GreenNet put our web site out of action for two vital weeks. Tackling this problem meant LabourNet had to be moved to a more secure computer system. This meant sections of the site no longer worked. In particular this affected our docks archive and Labour Webmasters' Forum. I apologise particularly to Eric Lee, moderator of the Forum for the long time this has been out of action now.

We would have been able to deal with these problems quite quickly if it had not been for what hit us next. In less than 12 hrs after us coming back into operation, legal action for libel was threatened against GreenNet, our service provider, because of an item on LabourNet. The item concerned was a Press Release issued by the South African Municipal Workers' Union as part of their campaign against water privatisation in South Africa and related to a British transnational, Biwater Plc. The solicitors threatening legal action, Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, were acting on behalf of Biwater Plc. Their objection was to a sentence in the Press Release refering to allegations made against Biwater in the Mail & Guardian, a South African newspaper. They pointed out that these allegations had been the subject of court action in Britain against the Independent in 1994 and Private Eye in 1996. In both cases, the defendants had paid damages and legal costs to Biwater and apologised for the allegations.

I took the decision that there were vital issues involved around this legal action and I have therefore devoted most of my time to dealing with this. It has meant that many other urgent questions have been badly neglected. I now have a massive backlog of unanswered mail and I apologise particularly to those people who have sent me important news items that we have not been able to cover because of this situation. Just to make matters worse I was called up for jury service, which meant I had to spend long periods locked up in a room in isolation from the outside world. Things have just got to get easier here!

The solicitors indicated that unless the press release was removed immediately from the site and this reported to them within seven days, legal action would be taken against GreenNet. GreenNet decided they had no choice, but to comply completely with these instructions which they did. They requested me to immediately remove the press release from LabourNet. I complied with this request, because I considered that, since it was GreenNet that was under immediate legal threat, it was vital that they be able to make their own decisions on a response to this threat.

However, I feel strongly that LabourNet does also have important interests at stake here too. The LabourNet steering committee listserv was also put of action by the hackers, so I have not been able to consult as fully as I would have liked with the other members of the LabourNet team. My position concerning the Biwater libel action threat is therefore largely my own although I feel others at LabourNet would agree with its general approach. I want to put this position up for debate.

First of all, I wish to make clear that LabourNet has no interest at all in defending a right to tell lies. We have sought at all times to maintain the highest levels of accuracy in our reporting and we feel that this is one of the reasons our material is widely read. We were, in fact, founded on the principle of using the Internet to present the truth, from the viewpoint of the labour movement, against other media that were clearly dominated and to a large degree controlled by monied interests.

It is this position which causes me profound concern over present events. We are not yet fully able to decide for ourselves concerning the truth or otherwise of the allegations made against Biwater Plc (although LabourNet is certainly looking into this). However, what is clear is that Biwater is able to use its vast financial resources to intimidate organisations who do not have similar resources and therefore feel they are unable to fight back through the courts. If Biwater can do this then they will be imposing the same control of the Internet that exists over other media, the control of big money. Indeed, it poses even more serious restrictions than exist elsewhere since Biwater seem determined to remove even archive material from the Internet. This is positively Orwellian in its implications and if they were successful it would mean greater restrictions on the Internet than exist at a public library.

It is not, in fact, whether the allegations against Biwater are true or not that is determining the events presently taking place, but the fact that they have been given two apologies as a result of the very stringent British libel laws, and are now using this to silence everyone else. Anyone who followed the Maxwell case would know that such public apologies under British law are not a guarantee of where the truth lies.

If Biwater Plc had approached us asking that we carried a prominent notice that the allegations had been subject to court cases with a link to details, I would have readily agreed to this. Such a solution seems even more important with regards to the archived copies of the Mail & Guardian which now have been or are about to be removed because of further legal threats by Biwater in South Africa. LabourNet also has a policy of granting a right of reply where we think it is necessary and, concerning these particular allegations, I would have extended this right to Biwater.

I have therefore taken the decision to continue to make the SAMWU press release and the original Mail & Guardian article available via a LabourNet site situated in Denmark. At the same time I also make available the Court Apologies of the Independent and Private Eye. The offer to Biwater Plc to put their case still remains open.

This material is available at

It is the attempt to remove all traces of the Mail and Guardian article from the Internet, including even archives, through intimidating people with threatened law suits that is totally unacceptable. This must not be allowed to happen and must be fought by the Internet community as a whole.

Biwater has the power of money, we have the power of the Internet. We must use this to the full. The pages forced from the Internet by legal threats and intimidation must be given a much wider audience than they would otherwise have had, by disseminating them as widely as possible. This is our ultimate defence of Internet democracy.

The Danish Inform BBS <> have been the first to stand up and be counted. They deserve great credit for providing LabourNet with alternative facilities to continue publishing the Biwater material. They should be given wide support for their stand. My favourite film scene has always been the unforgettable "I'm Spartacus" scene (Perhaps I have been involved in too many defeats!). It seems relevant here.

I invite debate on these vital questions for the future of our labour work on the Internet.

Chris Bailey