How Iain Dale libelled Tom Watson (and me)

This entry was posted on
Wednesday, October 28th, 2009
4:22 pm and is filed
under Old Media, The Political Weblog Movement, Tories! Tories! Tories!, UK Libel Law.

“I didn’t libel Tom Watson. if I had done, he would have sued me.” – Iain Dale (source)

Today, in the High Court, The Sun issued an apology to Tom Watson (more) and agreed to pay a “substantial sum in damages” (plus costs) for the “acute distress, humiliation and embarrassment” caused.

Take a look at what The Sun have apologised for specifically:

The Claimant was not copied in on, nor did he know about any of the emails between McBride and Draper until Friday 10 April, when the matter was first drawn by the media to the attention of Downing Street. He did not have any involvement in or knowledge of the “Red Rag” website. Accordingly, the Claimant did not lie when he publicly denied involvement by way of press releases issued first by him on 12 April and then on 14 April by Carter-Ruck solicitors on his behalf. (source)

The origin of the false claim that Tom Watson was CCed on the Draper/McBride emails is officially unknown; the person who first aired it via a mainstream channel was the Conservative blogger Iain Dale.

Iain Dale included the ‘CC’ claim in an article published by the Mail on Sunday on Sunday 12 April 2009. Iain’s story has changed a few times, but let’s take this recent version as gospel, just for laughs:

In the original text submitted to the Mail on Sunday I alleged that Tom had been copied in on the Damian McBride emails. I did so because I was told that by a senior Labour source that this was the case. I also published it on my blog in THIS post at 5.45 on the evening of 11 April. At 6.20pm I received a call from Guido Fawkes who told me that Tom Watson had not in fact been cc’d on the emails he had seen, although he was referred to. I immediately reworded the blogpost and wrote a replacement paragraph for the Mail on Sunday column, which was sent to them at 6.30pm. In retrospect, instead of amending the blogpost I should have written an Update at the bottom. However, I needed to get the Mail on Sunday piece corrected. Unfortunately, despite me sending it in what I assumed to be good time, the change wasn’t made so the wrong paragraph was printed. This was cockup, not conspiracy.” – Iain Dale (source)

If we’re to believe Iain, then the urgent need to send a single email on early Saturday evening led to his failure to issue a correction on the original post for the rest of the night and all of the following Sunday and Monday (no correction was posted there until 11.30am on Tuesday 14 April, even though Iain managed to post a small ‘clarification’ elsewhere at 4.15pm on Monday 13 April) but the fact is that Iain had plenty of opportunities to issue a correction and chose not to.

In fact, at the time, he was knowingly deleting comments (mostly from me) asking him to post a correction, but I’ll get back to that and more right after we look at the libel left standing:

1. The libel that remained (and is still present on his website)

Initially, Iain removed from the offending post the text that read; “Tom Watson, who sat next to McBride in the Downing Street bunker and was copied on on all the emails to Derek Draper” but left in place the following:

“Tom Watson is Minister for the Civil Service. What did he do when he received these emails? Did he berate Damian McBride and tell him to stop abusing his position? No. Instead, he either tacitly or overtly encouraged McBride to send more.”

There was (and is) NO proof that Tom Watson received these emails at all, so it is false to assert that he was in a position to object and conclude that he “tacitly or overtly encouraged McBride to send more”. The evidence simply doesn’t support the premise. This passage was/is libel. End of.

This text was NOT removed from the body of the post until days later, and (in a classic indication of how careless Dale is with comments) remains live on his website even today:

screen capture of comment

One of Iain Dale’s favourite tricks is to deny that something is libel on the basis that it is an honestly-held opinion (e.g. in his mind, this applies when he publishes claims that I am “clearly psychotic”). Here, he has taken it that one step further and based a (false) assertion of fact on that opinion, and he still doesn’t recognise that it’s libel. Extraordinary.

Further, this text (especially minus any correction) clearly gave the impression that the ‘CC’ claim stood, when instead it was based on nothing more than Iain Dale’s certainty that Tom Watson must have known what was happening at a nearby desk on a colleague’s computer, and here we come to the lie of omission:

2. The false ‘CC’ claim, and the lie of omission that followed

According to Iain’s own account, the ‘CC’ claim was also live on his website for a short period on Saturday 11 April 2009 before Iain removed it…. but remove it is all he did. At the time he published no correction about his false ‘CC’ claim and (crucially) continued to publish comments (his own and others’) that asserted Tom Watson’s involvement as a matter of fact, not opinion.

Here you need to take into account the size and nature of the audience Iain was playing to at the time. Let’s take the single day of Sunday 12 April; Iain’s audience has jumped from average of 5,000 to 8,000 visitors on a Sunday to somewhere near 18,000 that particular Sunday (source). The following diagram – which is to scale – compares his enlarged circulation for that day to the approximate daily circulation of the Mail on Sunday on the same day (source), and The Sun on the next (source).

comparison of circulation figures

Exactly how these audiences overlap and where Iain’s extra ~10K visitors came from on that day remains uncertain, but it’s fair to assume that a good portion of them are likely to have arrived after being exposed to the false ‘CC’ claim, and it’s fair to say that only a handful of them left corrected on that point for all of Sunday the 12th and most of Monday the 13th; indeed, according to Iain’s own account, if you wanted to learn the truth before Tuesday, you needed to be (a) a journalist, (b) who asked about the ‘CC’ claim specifically

(Psst! This same diagram may also provide clues about Tom Watson’s decision to sue over what was published in The Mail on Sunday and The Sun but not on Iain Dale’s Diary, regardless of how influential Dale himself may have been in sharing/publishing the central falsehood.)

3. Deliberately careless comment moderation

Iain Dale did all of this with comment moderation turned OFF; this meant that comments would be published immediately, without being checked by Iain first.

If someone went too far in what they claimed about Tom Watson (or anyone else), then Iain Dale would allow them to run free for however long he was away from his screen, before erasing (some) comments without so much as an ‘oops’ for the record. This is not something he allows on his site when there are serious accusations levelled against him or his friends, but for some reason he thinks it’s fair to subject political enemies to this risk when it suits him.

There were repeated instances of people taking advantage of the shoddy moderation over the long weekend, using the platform to launch attacks on Tom Watson, and even to imply that I was somehow involved with Draper/McBride. Iain Dale was repeatedly (and quite dishonestly) using ‘sloppy’ moderation to his advantage in this way while efficiently deleting all of my submitted responses, and refusing to acknowledge my emails or answer my calls.

(Further, this was happening at a time when someone was actively publishing false claims about me being a convicted paedophile, a valid concern that Iain charmingly describes as a “preoccupation” of mine.)

Iain Dale knows that – in blogging especially – deleting data after the fact is not the same as not allowing it to be published in the first place, especially when you have a choice to engage moderation controls and decide against it (for selfish if not downright malicious reasons). While the deleted comments may (eventually) be removed from Iain’s website, they will have been read and retained by anyone subscribing to the relevant thread, and automatically syndicated on external websites beyond Iain’s control within minutes of their publication. (I am sure that Iain knows all of these things and more because he is soon to appear as an expert witness, speaking on the subject of responsible comment moderation.)

But when the mob was at its height and calling for blood, Iain Dale not only maintained a major lie of omission but did so while playing it fast and loose in comments; he refused to address or correct false accusations levelled at Tom Watson (and myself) in his posts and under comments, he deleted comments calling for a correction of his earlier post, and he refused to engage comment moderation… until the moment he stood accused of libel and instead accused me of harassment. Then Iain engaged comment moderation (and re-introduced anonymous comments) before publishing dozens of comments alleging my involvement in criminal activity and making false statements about my mental health.

I cannot link to the relevant post, because Iain has since deleted it. But as with the CC claim, in the minds of many of his readers, the accusation stands and will continue to stand until he issues a correction.


Iain Dale not only libelled Tom Watson, he knowingly misled his readers about it.

Iain also libelled me in the process, and he refuses to issue a correction of the since-deleted post/ comments, even though he knows that his accusations are being used against me.

These are just two examples of Iain Dale knowingly using lies against his political enemies… and according to Iain’s own standards, what I say must be true if Iain doesn’t sue me, right?

“I didn’t libel Tom Watson. if I had done, he would have sued me.” – Iain Dale (source)

UPDATE – See also:
David Cameron: also putting political agenda ahead of principle

About Tim Ireland

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