The litigious Mr. Williams

Russell Wangersky
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The word went out a little over a month ago; former premier Danny Williams was letting it be known, pretty broadly, that he was fed up with how he was being characterized publicly.

No longer premier, he told people he was willing to defend his reputation in the courts if necessary.

And, truth be told, unlike many people who feel their reputations have been sullied, he has deep enough pockets to do exactly that. Because libel cases aren’t cheap: damages, if you win, are traditionally not very large and you often don’t begin to cover your legal costs. Any victory can be a moral one, at best.

Last week, Williams revealed that he and an iron ore company where he’s a member of the board of directors, have launched a pair of defamation suits, one against businessman and blogger Brad Cabana, the other against Sierra Club Canada and Sierra member Bruno Marcocchio. The suits involve comments on blogs and statements made on an open-line radio program.

There has been at least one other threat of legal action as well, made against Telegram columnist Bob Wakeham but later resolved.

Normally, defamation cases quickly fall from the public eye, because their circumstances are clouded in secrecy; once someone is being sued for libel, you don’t want to compound the process by repeating the potentially libellous comment again.

But without that information, it’s hard to say just what the merits of a case are.

In the case of the Brad Cabana suit and the Sierra Club suit, the CBC has done a clear public service by putting the full texts of the lawsuits up online.

Why? Because they show just what sort of statements Williams was upset about. Without prejudging a legal process that has barely begun, the documents show that the case could be an interesting one.

Regardless of the merits of the lawsuits, one thing that’s clear about libel cases is how quickly most people involved want to get away from them. Defending yourself against them is easily as expensive as launching them, and even if you are successful, you end up spending tens of thousands of dollars in the process — especially if you’re facing a determined and well-heeled opponent.

Interestingly, Williams would probably not be following the same course if he was still premier, even if he had been clearly defamed.

Public figures end up taking more abuse — sadly, it has become an expected part of public life and, as Williams has shown in the past, you’re not without your own particular defences.

As a politician, you also have the ready-made platform of your public office with which to lob salvos back at opponents.

Heck, as premier, you can even call up a city mayor — who’s also a talk-show host — and snarl “You presumably run a municipality,” and go on to say “we don’t need that kind of pessimism and crap coming out of your mouth.”

But I digress a little.

Now, the question of whether Williams is still a public figure or not is an interesting one — because he is still involved in a number of ventures that have public components.

There’s no problem with Williams wanting to protect his reputation, even if it means he’s got a quick legal trigger finger and lots of ammo. Heck, at worst, it helps spread some extra money around the legal community.

But there is a public policy problem.

It’s something known as libel chill: if you know that someone has their finger on the trigger, as a journalist, you end up looking over your shoulder all the time.

Libel chill also extends to everyone’s bosses, who get even touchier — faced with having to explain the possibility of the addition of big unbudgeted legal expenses, they get downright twitchy about running anything.

The other problem is that while Williams may have left public life, he hasn’t left the public policy radar. Far from it.

Because there’s clear public interest in the discussion of a number of the business ventures Williams is involved in.

His massive planned housing development on what used to be publicly owned land (purchased shortly before he was sworn in as premier); his involvement in a major Labrador iron ore play as a company director; and even his position as an executive with a hockey franchise that once requested provincial government assistance — all have the potential to quickly drag Williams back into the public debate.

Williams has a right to protect his reputation — if he feels this column damages that reputation, I suppose I’ll hear about it soon enough — but where that reputation intersects with the public’s right to know, well, things aren’t so cut and dried.


Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Sierra Club, CBC

Geographic location: Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Pierre Neary
    July 15, 2012 - 09:30

    "It’s something known as libel chill: if you know that someone has their finger on the trigger, as a journalist, you end up looking over your shoulder all the time." I agree. Well said Russell.

  • William Daniels
    July 15, 2012 - 09:23

    The bullying continues. Don't go away mad Mr. Williams. Just.........

  • winston adams
    July 14, 2012 - 18:48

    John smith, how many have you called lunatics? Childish behaviour. Now personally I've never been a fan of Danny Williams. Never been part of any fan club. But Danny has a lot of business smarts. But this court actiion reminds me of the time our past prime minister, Mulrooney, sued the CBC, was it for 10 million? He claimed his character was "besmirched". Never heard of that word before then. And the CBC settled for a million or two. Seemed maybe he was besmirched. But later we found out that Mulrooney indeed took , was it 300,000.00 in cash in paper bags from the German guy. So much for reputations. But Danny is no fool. This court action may be a good business move. Can a guy who turned his premier's salary over to charity really do anything wrong? But I doubt it will improve his reputation, which is relatively solid yet, and I can't see how this can impove on that, but time will tell, I guess.

  • David
    July 14, 2012 - 14:58

    Bullies bully. The cheerleading constituency changes, but the bully doesn't.

  • Please Stop the deceit and get on with creating an economy in this province that we should have had since we have been in existence, given the great natural resource base that Nature so beautifully endowed us with.
    July 14, 2012 - 13:36

    Enough of allowing politicians shutting us up with ruses and lack of information over matters we know are NOT above board. Non-transparency on matters down through the years is the bane that allowed everyone of our Newfoundland and Labrador "natural resources" that have been developed to date to be shipped out of here in the raw stated for other areas of the country to create economies and thrive, while our province died on the Canadian Economic Vine. Please Stop the deceit and get on with creating an economy in this province that we should have had since we have been in existence, given the great natural resource base that Nature so beautifully endowed us with.

  • John Smith
    July 14, 2012 - 10:50

    I hope and pray that Mr. Williams and Alderon take this as far as it will possibly go. I hope they use these two imbeciels...Pinnochio and Cabana as examples to the world that you can't get on the airwaves and spew lies and defame people's character to further your own agenda. Please, please Mr. Williams...take this as far as it will go...if not the lunatic fringe will continue to undermine this project for their own gain.

    • Richard
      July 14, 2012 - 19:04

      If you're going to call someone an 'imbecile' you should probably learn how to spell it.

  • Roy
    July 14, 2012 - 10:09

    What's the worry? The only people that have to look over their shoulders are the ones who choose to print libelous comments. Fortunatley most posters to these forums are respectful in what they submit but it seems that there is an increasing amount of people that hide behind anonymous names to sling libelous arrows at public figures (e.g politicians, religious leaders, business leaders, or anyone in the news that day.) From the comments I've read posted to the Telegram, I believe it's only a matter of time before the Telegram and some anonymous poster are hauled into court for libel.

    • Billy Hollingshead
      July 14, 2012 - 14:27

      I think Roy that you miss the point. It's NOT only those who choose to print libelous comments that have to look over their shoulders. To defend the truth of what you say is expensive. Therefore many libel suits are used as a 'chilling' weapons by those who have the money to silence the truth. And there lies the difficult balance between protecting reputations from vindictive libellous remarks and the freedom to tell the truth. These matters should not be decided by the wealth of either party.

  • saelcove
    July 14, 2012 - 09:41

    Williams on one of his tirades again

  • Bill
    July 14, 2012 - 09:24

    Typical Wangersky writing! Try to write something a little will never believe how good it feels. But then it might not get as many readers or not sell as many you better stay your negative, pessimistic self.

    • Albert Camus
      July 15, 2012 - 17:10

      Hahaha! The irony!

  • Jason
    July 14, 2012 - 08:47

    Time for Danny to grow up. He's a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum every time someone says boo to him. He just wants to silence anyone who dares oppose him. Great, now I'm probably gonna be sued.

  • Little Man Dan
    July 14, 2012 - 07:37

    I'll sue ya!