A few weeks ago, Justice Eady (he of News of the World vs Max Mosley) ruled in a legal action taken by a defeated Conservative councillor, Christopher Quinton, against his Liberal Democrat opponent and agent following the 2007 South Oxfordshire elections.
The case arose from comments made in leaflets about local planning and development issues and Christopher Quinton lost the case. He had alleged malicious falsehood against Robin Pierce (the winning candidate) and David Cooper (the agent) over the Liberal Democrat leaflets and also tried an unusual argument under data protection law.
The data protection argument was, essentially, that as the leaflets were artworked on a computer and named the Conservative, then the act of artworking and producing the leaflets involved processing his personal data (his name and information about what he had done) and that therefore data protection rules apply.
These include, for example, the requirement to process the data fairly – and so by printing the case against Christopher Quinton, but without including his explanations, the data was processed unfairly, and therefore the leaflets broke data protection law. Moreover, data processing requires notification, and the Conservatives were not notified that the Liberal Democrats were working on such a leaflet.
This argument would have had far-reaching consequences. Imagine if Gordon Brown could argue that any opposition politician producing a leaflet criticising him was processing his personal data. (By the way, this is not an issue for journalists as there is a special exemption for journalism, worded though in such a way as to clearly not cover the production of political leaflets.)
Justice Eady robustly rejected this attempt to extend the scope of data protection law, saying,
Nothing was cited to support such a far ranging proposition, whether from debate in the legislature or from subsequent judicial dicta … I decline … to interpret the statue in a way which results in absurdity. Plainly, it cannot have been the intention of the legislature to require candidates to give their opponents advance warning each time reference is to be made to them in a document that happens to be computer generated.
Justice Eady found that there had been no “substantial inaccuracy or unfairness” in the material from the Liberal Democrats and made several comments supporting the freedom for parties and candidates to make their case in an election, rather than having to also lay out their opponents’ cases too.
For example, where a political opponent is criticised for their actions, there is no need to put include in your leaflet the other side’s argument too: “It was not, however, to be expected that a political opponent should make those excuses for him.” (Again, imagine the impact otherwise – each leaflet from the Conservative Party attacking Gordon Brown’s economic record having to also include Gordon Brown’s views too.)
A large proportion of the Liberal Democrat side’s £120,000 costs will be due to be paid by Christopher Quinton, whose own costs were estimated at £250,000. A good day for freedom of speech – and for lawyers and their banks.