Bad memory. Bad law?

(Warning: this post is pretty far outside of my usual bailiwick…)

I was reading today’s Guardian and came across Zoe Williams’ sketch (in UK newspapers, this is a short, often humorous, descriptive piece, usually about an event like a parliamentary debate or court proceedings), “Rebekah Brooks lays bare the secret of her success”, recounting the appearance of former News International CEO Rebekah Brooks at the Leveson Inquiry into “phone hacking” and the too-cozy relationship between the media and politicians.

The sketch was mostly remarkable for what it couldn’t say. Williams writes

But ultimately, this is a ridiculous person. You couldn’t live a life with this bad a memory. Never mind that you’d never be able to do a demanding job, you wouldn’t be able to pass your GCSEs.

And that makes the whole business grating to watch. “I can’t remember” is the defence of a person who wasn’t really concentrating, whose mind was somewhere else.

And this makes the whole business grating to read. I don’t think this is only an indulgence in some old-fashioned British circumlocution: Williams really means “I think Rebekah Brooks was lying”. But I assume she can’t write that, because that would be accusing Brooks of the crime of lying under oath, and Brooks would be free to sue for libel — and under UK libel law, the burden of proof is on the defendant to prove the statement true, impossible in this case. (I am not a lawyer, but this is my understanding.)

This is just one of the minor repercussions of the current state of UK libel law, which the government may be overhauling soon — it was discussed in last week’s Queen’s Speech (another amusing tradition in which the Monarch reads a speech written by the government recounting its plans for the next parliamentary session). Simon Singh, a science writer who was sued for liable by the [redacted] of the chiropractic industry, writes that the proposal still doesn’t go far enough, especially in its lack of distinction between individuals and corporations. (Americans may think this sounds familiar from a different context.)