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 email@example.com.