Self-Published British Author Sues For Libel Over Bad Amazon Review

In his self-published book The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need to Know, British entrepreneur Chris McGrath set out to prove the existence of God and advance creationist theory. When McGrath began marketing his book in the reviews section of the Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) page for Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s Grand Design, he attracted the criticism of atheist blogger Vaughn Jones.

One of Jones’s reviews of McGrath’s book was published on the website of evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins. McGrath now claims his book was a parody and is suing Vaughn Jones, Richard Dawkins and Amazon for libel in British court, where libel law notoriously favors the plaintiff. For update, click through.

Update, 11/11/11: The hearing was supposed to end today, but this evening Chris McGrath writes on his website, “No decision was reached today on any part of the strike out/summary judgement applications. The judge has advised he needs possibly a further 10 days/2 weeks to consider all the submissions and evidence.” Stay tuned.

On his LinkedIn page, McGrath says he is a screenwriter and film producer, a script reader for ICM, a book publisher and a philanthropist for Christian causes. His book, published under the pseudonym “Scrooby” in 2010, is “a harmless, socially constructive critique,” he says. On a page on his website, he explains how he promoted the book with “mocked-up, favourable reviews and over-the-top press releases…a publicity idea was conceived to highlight and counter Stephen Hawking’s marketing campaign to sell books on a promise of proof – with mathematical theory alone – that ‘God did not create the universe’. The idea was to review the merits of that suggestion and then link that review to the sale of The Attempted Murder of God: Hidden Science You Really Need To Know. The satirical counter argument, the marketing parody, everything was all set.”

UK blog Ministry of Truth notes McGrath “marketed his book for somewhere close to nine months as a genuine contribution to the anti-Dawkins genre.”

Atheist blogger Vaughn Jones went to The Grand Design‘s Amazon page to read some of the reviews. He usually waits to buy the paperback versions, he says, but was “desperate to get an insight into one of the brightest minds ever to have existed.” (Jones posted this account on his blog, which has been taken down for the trial, but which I accessed via *Google (NSDQ: GOOG) Cache.) Jones was upset to find the book’s review section filled with promotional reviews for McGrath’s book. So he went to the Amazon page for The Attempted Murder of God, posted some negative reviews in September and October 2010 and, after a bit of Internet research, outed McGrath as the person behind the “Scrooby” pseudonym. In one of his reviews, Jones said he felt sorry for McGrath’s children and called them by their first names. He also reported McGrath to Amazon for posting spam reviews. McGrath reported Jones to the police and attempted to have all of his reviews removed from Amazon. The police chose not to investigate. Amazon removed some of McGrath’s reviews for being spam, and did not remove any of Jones’ reviews. (However, all of the reviews have now been removed from Amazon because of the pending court case.)

In July, McGrath sued Jones, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, and Amazon for libel. The hearings are taking place today and tomorrow in London’s High Court. The hearings begin today, November 10, and run through tomorrow. At issue, writes McGrath, are “Article 13 of the European Convention of Human Rights, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Charities Act 2009, the Defamation Act 1996, and a raft of issues pertaining to limited company libel and damages, internet publications and jurisdiction.”

Vaughn, who cannot afford legal representation, is defending himself alongside lawyers for Dawkins and Amazon.

British libel law is controversial because plaintiffs do not have to prove that defamation has caused them damage, only that someone would think less of them after hearing or reading the libelous claim. The defendant must prove that no damage was caused. In the U.S., the burden of proving that damage was caused is placed on the plaintiff. Because British law favors the plaintiff, many American celebrities and companies–including Britney Spears, Kate Hudson and McDonald’s–have chosen to prosecute libel cases in British courts. In recent months, the British government has proposed changes to libel law in order to protect free speech and discourage foreigners from prosecuting cases in British courts. “The right to speak freely and debate issues without fear of censure is a vital cornerstone of a democratic society,” UK Department of Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said earlier this year. “In recent years though, the increased threat of costly libel actions has begun to have a chilling effect on scientific and academic debate, and investigative journalism.”

With no changes to the law yet, it’s unclear how Jones, Dawkins and Amazon will fare in the courts.