Private Eye1194 Sept/Oct 2007

THE most relentless opponent of free speech in England is not MI5, the Downing Street press office or the Muslim Council of Britain but Mr Justice Eady who has found against reporters so often that the law lord Lord Hoffman slapped him down for being "hostile" to responsible journalism in the public interest.

This time the man putting Eady in the spotlight is the Eye's old friend Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz. As we reported in the last issue, the Saudi plutocrat has used the English libel courts to punish authors who repeat the claim by the US Treasury that his charity funded terrorism - a libellous allegation, he says, because he was not involved in the running of the charity.

Among the many books he has gone to law over is Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop it, by Dr Rachel Ehrenfeld. He sued in 2004 and Eady duly ordered Ehrenfeld to apologise, retract and pay bin Mahfouz $225,913 in costs and damages.

Mahfouz's victory was less breathtaking than the fact that Eady agreed to hear the case at all. Ehrenfeld is an American and Funding Evil was published by an American house. There was no British edition and no promotion of the book in Britain. Mahfouz would have lost if he had sued in America, where freedom of speech is respected and public figures can't win unless they prove an author acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Eady, however, allowed Mahfouz to sue in London, where the presumption of guilt falls on the defendant's shoulders, because British readers had ordered copies from the US via Amazon - 23 readers, to be precise.

Eady worked on the assumption that Mahfouz was a well thought-of man with a reputation to lose, even though the Saudi had been caught up in the BCCI banking scandal and agreed to pay a fine of $225m in return for the US authorities dropping fraud charges. Ehrenfeld refused to leave America because as "a matter of principle I will not submit to a legal system less protective of free speech than our own". Eady found for Mahfouz nevertheless - the first ever declaration of falsehood in a case that had not been contested before a judge and jury.

Now Ehrenfeld is fighting back. A brief submitted by her lawyers to the court of appeals of the state of New York for a hearing later this year asks the judges to declare that Eady's judgments are unenforceable in the US. It describes Mahfouz as a "serial libel tourist", part of a "mounting and insidious trend when a person, usually prominent and wealthy, heads to London" to exploit an authoritarian law.

The American press is on Ehrenfeld's side. The veteran reporters Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff cite the combination of Saudi money and English judges as a potent threat to investigative journalism. They fear that if Eady isn't challenged, a climate of fear will develop and American publishers will refuse to sell hard-hitting books on the internet in case they reach England.

Ehrenfeld describes in her brief how Mahfouz's agents told her and her publishers that they must destroy all copies of the book. On one occasion, she alleges, a man came to her home in New York and told her: "You had better respond. Sheikh bin Mahfouz is a very important person and you ought to take good care of yourself."

Somewhat strangely for a foreigner who brought a case in London against a book published elsewhere, Mahfouz will argue that the US courts don't have jurisdiction to hear the case.

If Ehrenfeld wins, libel lawyers will lose a lot of money and American editors and journalists will be mightily relieved. If she loses, libel lawyers will become richer still, as ever more Saudi billionaires, scientologists and sex-mad upstarts flock to the royal courts of justice to ask Mr Justice Eady to control what is said about them, not just in England, but across the whole wide world.