Sunday, September 9, 2007

Chicken University Press, Part 1 of 2

Financier of Holy Terror Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz is in the news again.

For those of you who may not be familiar with the case, here is some background on what this is about from Index on Censorship. I have reproduced excerpts from The true cost of libel, with my comments. (I have placed the titles of books in italics where that had not been done.)

Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, a Saudi-born Irish passport holder, and one of the richest men in the world, is no stranger to the UK libel courts.

Since 2002, banker bin Mahfouz has used his considerable financial clout to garner apologies and damages through the courts from a variety of organisations, from tiny leftist political publisher Pluto to the Mail on Sunday, one of the UK’s biggest newspapers.

Recently, bin Mahfouz's attention has been turned to respected academic publisher Cambridge University Press.

Bin Mahfouz's wrath was provoked by the CUP book Alms for Jihad by Robert O Collins and J Millard Burr, a wide-ranging study of the use of Islamic charities in siphoning funding to al-Qaeda.

Bin Mahfouz alleged that the book linked him, financially and through family, to Osama bin Laden, a claim which he has previously forced others to retract in the UK courts.

However, the authors firmly deny bin Mahfouz's specific claims. In a comprehensive response to the sheikh, Collins and Burr insist that they never once in the book name bin Mahfouz personally as a funder of bin Laden, or repeat the false claim that a sister of bin Mahfouz is married to bin Laden. There were nine other specific claims, all of which Collins and Burr addressed in a lengthy letter put together, they say, at the request of CUP.

This detailed defence was not enough to convince CUP (indeed, bin Mahfouz's law firm Kendall Freeman told Index: 'We were never presented with any defence prepared by the authors of Alms for Jihad'). On July 30, CUP issued an outright apology, displaying a sadly understandable lack of commitment to its authors, in the face of bin Mahfouz’s personal wealth (estimated at $3.2bn) and his enthusiasm for litigation.

CUP declared that it would pulp all unsold copies of the book, and requested that library copies be returned, to meet the same fate. They also agreed to donate a sum (variously described as 'small' and 'significant') to Mahfouz's elected charity, Unicef.

UNICEF -- nice touch.

In the apology Kevin Taylor, CUP’s intellectual property director, went as far as to describe the claims made in the book as 'entirely and manifestly false'. One can only wonder how Cambridge, which in the same apology describes itself as a ‘responsible publisher’ would allow a book based on manifest falsehood get right through the editing process and on to bookshelves. The authors themselves refused to take part in the apology.

They reviewed it extensively prior to publication.

Now, however, the book is "entirely and manifestly false".

Did they goof up then, or are they goofing up now?

What you have here is zero integrity on the part of Cambridge University Press; Cambridge University Press has a wet noodle for a backbone.

Chicken University Press

Robert O Collins told Index: 'Our defense was simply a facade on the part of CUP who had decided they could not possibly win under British libel law and sought to settle as quickly as possible at any cost and get on with the business of publishing books. Which they did. We of course refused to be a party to their settlement. CUP lawyers had spent a month in March 2005 vetting our book.'

It would most likely have been impossible for them to win the case, such is the nature of UK libel law, which would have obliged them to counter every single one of bin Mahfouz's claims about the book, unlike US law, where it would have been up to bin Mahfouz to counter the book’s claims.

Beyond the integrity issue, the real problem is the UK's libel laws.

This is the third book-pulping Mahfouz can take credit for – having previously seen off Profile Books' Unknown Soldiers and Pluto’s Reaping the Whirlwind.

Now, bin Mahfouz's book-pulpings do not mean that he is some throw-back to the Inquisition, or even to the Nazi era; neither does it mean that he is a Financier of Holy Terror.

Sheikh bin Mahfouz is merely a devout practitioner of the progressive Religion of Peace.

Media lawyer Mark Stephens, of Finers Stephens Innocent, believes that personal wealth can give plaintiffs a huge advantage in the UK courts: 'The courts are predicated on the basis that each party has the wherewithal to bring to the court all the relevant evidence, and be represented by lawyers of equal ability. Vindication through contested trial is, in my view, a value that underpins the British libel system.'

He went on to say that as nobody has parity of arms with bin Mahfouz, 'the allegations about him have never been contested in trial. There have always been settlements or default judgements.'

Laurence Harris of Kendall Freeman says that bin Mahfouz resorts to the UK courts because 'he and his family travel to the UK, have friends here, own properties and do business here and consequently have significant reputations in the UK. Our client and his family adopted a policy of seeking to protect their reputations in the UK in 2002 when a major UK newspaper made similar defamatory allegations and our client brought proceedings, which were initially defended by the newspaper but ultimately settled by an apology and payment of damages. Since then, our client and his family have continued consistently to protect their reputations in the UK in respect of publications which appear in the UK and which make such allegations.'

Justice in the UK goes to the highest bidder.

But, is there really an issue here?

From another article, this time from from The Washington Times, entitled Up in smoke:

When Cambridge told the authors about the letter in May, Mr. Collins says, "we sent to them what we thought a very fine defense. We didn't do some of the things they accused us of, and we can defend the accusations we did make."

In fact, much of the information they used is in the public record. Mr. Mahfouz, who in 1993 paid $225 million in lieu of fines after his New York indictment (charges were dropped after the payment) in the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, helped found the Muwafaq Foundation. In 2001, when Mr. Mahfouz says he was not involved in running the charity, the U.S. Treasury Department named the charity an al Qaeda front organization.

"If you look at the book, there are about 1,000 footnotes. That book is meticulously researched," Mr. Collins says. "That is one damn good book."

Cambridge must have thought it was thorough, too. "In March 2005, the Cambridge lawyers spent a whole month going through the book and gave it a clean bill of health," he reports.

The irony is, Mr. Collins says, Mr. Mahfouz plays a very small role in the book, mentioned just 10 times, nine of which are in passing: "If we went through it with my computer, it would take me half an hour to take out his name and it wouldn't change a thing."

"That book is meticulously researched."

"In March 2005, the Cambridge lawyers spent a whole month going through the book and gave it a clean bill of health."

"If we went through it with my computer, it would take me half an hour to take out [bin Mahfouz's] name and it wouldn't change a thing."

While the next excerpt of the first article shows how afraid of bin Mahfouz people are, it also hints at how he has miscalculated:

Such is the fear of bin Mahfouz that even US-based Amazon is not selling Alms for Jihad, instead, somewhat disingenuously, offering a 557-word review for the knock-down price of $9.95. Unsuspecting punters, ordering what they thought was the book itself, were understandably upset to receive a small Word file. As one pointed out, not unreasonably: ‘I haven't even read the d--- review they gave me - I've already read reviews of the book, which is why I wanted to buy it in the first place!’

Meanwhile, copies of the actual book are said to be changing hands for upwards of $500.

The book, Alms for Jihad, is now headed on a roundabout course to be a best-seller.

And, from his progressive viewpoint of ensuring people only have access to the truth (not unlike the viewpoint that prevailed in Moscow during the height of the Soviet Union), Sheikh bin Mahfouz missed the obvious popular response to censorship -- samizdat, self-publication. There are far too many options available to determined people.

But, it need not go that far. Chicken University Press is not the only game in town; there are publishers with backbones.

In Part 2 of Chicken University Press, we will return to the story of Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld of The American Center for Democracy and publisher Bonus Books.

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