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The View

Money and justice

Do you believe that a rich businessman should be using his cash to secure justice?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2016, 11:59am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 June, 2016, 11:59am

Do you think that very rich business people should be using their money to secure access to the law?

How about this then: do you believe that a rich businessman should be using his cash to secure justice for a fellow citizen who has been woefully wronged by a third party?

As ever the answer may well depend on how the question is posed. In this instance the questions are not theoretical and relate to a well publicised US court case that ended with Terry Bollea, better known as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, winning a $140m award against the website Gawker for invasion of privacy after it posted a video of Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife.

A side issue here but one with weighty implications, is the size of the award that threatens to force Gawker’s closure and raises vital issues over media freedom and responsibility.

It turns out that the high profile venture capitalist Peter Thiel gave Bollea US$10million to bring this action. It is questionable whether this litigation would have got to the stage it finally reached without this heavy infusion of cash because plaintiffs in cases such as these are almost always reliant on their own resources in trying to seek legal redress.

In other words people of limited financial means have little chance of taking anyone to court for libel or invasion of privacy because the costs are prohibitive. In this context I am reminded of the first question the libel lawyer at the paper I worked for in London always raised when reviewing the potential for an action. “How much money do you think this guy has?” he would ask before getting into the details of the matter. Once assured that a potential plaintiff was light on means he would breeze through the story with little fear of legal consequences.

In this case the plaintiff happens to be rather well known but not as wealthy as Thiel, who has his own personal reasons for animus against Gawker, one of whose websites decided to ‘out’ him as being gay.

Thiel however argues that a broader principle is at stake here in supporting an action against a company that “routinely relied on the assumption that victims would be too intimidated or disgusted to even attempt redress for wrongdoings.”

He believes that he is using his financial muscle for the public good and deploying it to keep an irresponsible media in check.

Even some of those who support Thiel’s aims are rather alarmed by the size of the award to the plaintiff in this case, arguing that it crosses the line between keeping the media clean and disciplining a wrong doer to the extent that threatens the defendant’s very existence.

Nick Denton, Gawker’s founder, sees Thiel’s actions as part of the abuse of power by wealthy individuals. In an open letter he wrote: “the world is already uncomfortable with the unaccountable power of the billionaire class…and technology’s influence over the media”.

There is no glib answer to all this because the power and unaccountability of the super rich can hardly be denied but neither should there be doubts over the need for a free media.

Yet the glib will airily argue that the power of the rich is hardly something new, moreover it is, they say, akin to the rules of nature. Glibsters on the other side of the argument maintain that for all its faults a free and independent media must be preserved at all costs.

Beyond the glib talk this case raises serious issues over the limits of media freedom and the power of the rich.

Perhaps they are best addressed by making it easier and more affordable for the average citizen to seek redress for media wrongs by providing legal aid (almost impossible to obtain in cases like this even in places like Hong Kong which have well developed legal aid systems) and by using non-judicial means.

It is indeed impossible to prevent the rich and powerful from exercising a disproportionate degree of influence over the media but the reality is that the media has been ‘democratised’ by the Internet, which makes it possible to communicate with a mass audience at a much lower cost.

That still leaves online media vulnerable but a lack of means to defend themselves is no excuse for self-righteous irresponsibility. The judiciary meanwhile must also be careful not to loose sight of the basic principles of free speech. Those seeking to diminish freedom of speech either by legal means or by flexing their commercial muscles in other ways must be forced out of the shadows and compelled to pursue their aims in daylight. The greater good here may result in a degree of slack being shown to some very bad people.

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