The Good Wife meets English libel law

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 October 2011

I have written before about The Good Wife as the smartest technology show on (US) television; this week's episode (Season 3, episode 2, “The Death Zone”) takes on English libel law. The story begins when Alicia (Julianna Margulies) succeeds in defending a book author in a US court. The author is the brother of a a climber who has died on Mount Everest because, the author contends, a fellow climber had taken his oxygen bottle to help him on his own way to the summit. The accused climber produces a witness who says the events as recounted in the book are untrue. Alicia casts doubt on his testimony by pointing out that as the witness climbs without additional oxygen supplies, his perception in the death zone might have been altered, and that therefore the accuracy of his testimony cannot be relied upon to prove the plaintiff's contention that the author knowingly erred. Case dismissed. Or so she thinks. It's nice when your client hugs you.

Wendy M Grossman

“Do you know the key distinction between the libel laws in your country and mine?” asks a suddenly appearing menacing Englishman named James Thrush (Eddie Izzard). “The burden of proof is reversed.” Quite so, as a legion of campaigners have been saying for the last couple of years: in England it's the *defendant* who must prove the truth of his claim. Eighteen copies of the book sold in Great Britain. Have a writ.

A few minutes later, and we're in the Lockhart Gardner conference room with an English judge presiding by video link.

“You turned your back to the judge,” hisses English solicitor Timothy Ash Brennan (Simon Delaney) when Will is baffled by the judge's complaint about “the disposition of your body”. Fortunately, Will does not make the mistake of whipping out his cellphone.

The show does a nice job of pointing out that England is a lot more diverse than the US media usually show. Says Thrush: “I am not the England of Big Ben and bobbies. I'm not the England of doilies and cucumber sandwiches. I'm the England of football hooligans and Jack the Ripper. And this England don't play nice and it don't play fair, and it don't ever stop.” The baseball bat he leans on while speaking is just out of shot. He and Will are made for each other.

As, in the B story, are Kalinda and Eli, who meet this episode for the first time.

The show accurately hits not only England's libel law but superinjunctions and the power of Twitter to defeat them. “Where is the respect for our laws?” demands Thrush. A nice question, but doesn't he know there's always a loophole?

In real life, the case would take place in an English courtroom and Our Team would certainly hire an English barrister to represent the client. But it's fun watching Will (Josh Charles) run aground against the quaint English courtroom rules, and also a shocking number of otherwise intelligently written US shows get horrifyingly and embarrassingly stupid when they visit England (cf Friends, Bones, Letterman) – the sort of thing where if you're an expatriate American living in the UK you find yourself apologizing for their absurd ignorance. By keeping the action in “Chicago” (where they can use all the regular sets and advance the stories of the rest of the cast, The Good Wife managed to avoid this hideous fate *and* hit all the main flaws of English libel law. Libel tourism, indeed. Well done, guys.

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