Friday, September 21, 2007

If you are concerned about this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing which will cause you concern

Some of you might not be too interested in the possible takeover of Arsenal FC. Some of you may not even be terribly interested in football, but here's something football related which should worry you: the heavy-handed application of Britain's unfair libel laws to silence criticism.

Since lots of more committed types have picked up the story: I'll keep it brief. Former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray wrote of his concerns about oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who's seeking to increase his stake in Arsenal. Usmanov objected to these comments and others from blogger Tim Ireland (no idea who he is, a fair few geeky politicos seem to do so, however) but rather than suing directly (and remember, even then Murray would have had to prove the truth of his comments – he says he's quite willing to attempt to do this) he leaned on the hosting company, which, not wanting to risk the courts, pulled the plug on Murray's blog, Ireland's blog, Arsenal sites and a whole host of others which had nothing to do with the Usmanov spat. (Boris Johnson's was one of them, as everyone who blogs about this is contractually obliged to note).

Now, clearly I don't know whether Murray's claims are true or not – you can easily find them via Google if you wish to know more – but let's see what Usmanov's lawyers said in a rather curious bit of pre-emptive threatening sent to all national media outlets.

Mr Usmanov was imprisoned for various offences under the old Soviet regime. We wish to make it clear our client did not commit any of the offences with which he was charged. He was fully pardoned after President Mikhail Gorbachev took office. All references to these matters have now been expunged from police records . . . Mr Usmanov does not have any criminal record.

Got that? He didn't do it. And even if he did, he has been officially cleared and there's no record of it. Which means it never happened. For some reason it reminds me of Marlowe's Jew of Malta. "Thou hast commited.." "Fornication. But that was in another country. And beside, the wench is dead."

There's so much that stinks about this. The unfair libel laws that, uniquely in English law put the burden of proof on the defendant, and which make it far too easy for people with money to silence their critics. The fact that this particular rich man is leaning on the weakest links – the blog hosts – to avoid a potentially trick court case with someone who, as our one-time man in Tashkent, presumably knows a few things about the topic.

Then there's the fact that because of this legal stuff a possibly questionable character might get the wealth and status that comes from owning a leading football club with few awkward questions asked because the media is too scared to ask questions. In fact, Usmanov's links to the deeply unsavoury Karimov regime should be enough to get the alarm bells ringing. (Although Thaksin Shinawatra's takeover of Man City, has already proved that the FA isn't too fussy about ethical concerns.)

But, as others have already noted, if bloggers can be shut down this easily, then we all are potentially the poorer for it. A final question, though, if Usmanov's takeover succeeds, would you eat the sushi in the Arsenal boardroom?

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