UK Politics

In the Case of The Bow Group v Iain Dale... Round 2

25 Jun 2013 at 23:33

I warn you now. Reading this blogpost may make you lose the will to live.

Back on 24 May I incurred the wrath of the Bow Group’s chairman Ben Harris-Quinney when I wrote this in my ConservativeHome Diary.

I’m not quite sure what has happened to the Bow Group. It seems to have disappeared up its own backside, putting out daily press releases which seem designed to undermine the Conservative Party leadership at every opportunity. I remember when it considered itself a pseudo think tank, coming up with worthy (but often very dull) policy proposals, some of which were even adopted by Tory governments. It’s a long time since that happened. The Bow Group has now come under the control of a self-publicist who goes by the name of Ben Harris-Quinney. He doubles as director of Conservative Grassroots. Press releases from the latter organisation are sent from Bow Group email addresses, thereby blurring the two organisations, which, I would have thought, have very different aims. Mr Harris-Quinney’s main aim seems to take the government to task for its stance on gay marriage and his main weapon is to persuade 30 rather elderly Tory constituency chairmen to deliver regular letters to the doorstep of Number 10. Quite how pictures of 30 elderly gentlemen standing outside the Prime Minister’s home is meant to further whatever aim Mr Harris-Quinney has, only he can explain. Former Bow Groupers are said to be horrified at what has happened to a once august and respected organisation.

Fairly harmless stuff for a diary column, you’d have thought, but views which reflect what a lot of people think if my email inbox is anything to go by. However, Mr Harris-Quinney threatened ConservativeHome with a libel suit if they didn’t take down the article immediately. Unfortunately for Mr Harris-Quinney, the editor of ConHome is made of strong stuff and told him effectively to get lost, but if he wished to respond by way of an article he would happily publish it. Mr H-Q (as he shall henceforth be known) supplied such an article, but following legal advice ConHome decided it couldn’t be published as it contained two libels against me – not fair comment, actual libels. Not my interpretation, a lawyer’s. He then persuaded The Commentator to publish the same article. When I gently (and Raheem Kassam will confirm it was ‘gently’) pointed out the legal advice which had been received, he decided to take it down. I assumed that would be the end of it. However, today I received a legal letter from the Bow Group’s lawyers, Speechly Bircham. It is so preposterous that it is worth reprinting in full.

We are instructed by the Council of the Bow Group, who have asked us to write to you and correct certain factual inaccuracies that appeared in your article on ConservativeHome on May 24, which we understand was repeated on your blog and which followed an earlier tweet in similar vein.Our clients also take issue with the tone and language of your article, which they believe goes beyond fair comment and the courtesies of political debate.

1. The Bow Group’s aims are to provide a forum for research and debate in the Conservative Party. It holds no collective view. To say that the Bow Group considers itself a “pseudo think tank” that comes up with "worthy or “dull” articles may be fair comment but to say that it is “disappearing up its own backside” is pretty offensive to the many distinguished members, officers and patrons of the Group, that include numerous former cabinet members.

2. You say that the Bow Group sends out “daily press releases which seem designed to undermine the Conservative leadership at every opportunity”. Even a cursory look at the Group’s website shows that neither he nor the Group send out “daily press releases”, whether critical of the government or not.

3. You also say that it has come under the “control” of a self-publicist called Ben Harris-Quinney. Mr Harris Quinney was elected chairman of the Group along with 10 members of the Council in 2012 under its normal electoral process which has been in place for decades.

4. You say the Bow Group is in decline. In fact, in recent years it has greatly expanded its membership and greatly expanded its followers on Facebook and Twitter.

5. The essence of your article appears to be that Mr Harris-Quinney has somehow hijacked the group in order to push a particular view in the same-sex marriage debate. Mr Harris-Quinney does indeed hold strong views on this issue, as we understand you do. He has written several articles and issued comment along those lines, which he is entitled to do, even under the auspices of the Group where it is clear that it is his personal view and not those of the Group collectively. Indeed, the Group has published comment and articles in favour of same sex marriage. It s also clear from the Group’s website that it has published articles and comments from a wide range of its members on numerous topics.

6. We understand from Mr Harris-Quinney that he had no role whatsoever in “persuading” either of the groups of Party Association officers to write and deliver letters of protest to the Prime Minister on the same sex marriage issue in February and May. He accompanied the first group in February, not the second, and was not a signatory to either letter. In any case he would not have done so in his capacity of Chairman of the Bow Group which had no formal involvement in either initiative.

We would therefore ask that you remove the inaccuracies in your article which remains published online at www.conservativehome.com and www.iaindale.com, and that you please bear these comments in mind when writing about the Bow Group in future,

Mr Michael Lingens, Senior Partner of this firm, is the author of this letter if you wish to discuss the matter further.

Yours faithfully
Speechly Bircham LLP

Here is the reply I have just sent to Mr Lingens, who I note from his biography is a corporate lawyer, rather than a libel lawyer.

Dear Sirs,

I am in receipt of your letter dated 25 June 2013. As a publisher of 15 years standing I think I am quite able to decide what constitutes ‘fair comment’, so my initial instinct is to refer you to the case of Arkell v Pressdram, but I am far too polite. Furthermore,I am assuming you have written this letter pro bono for your clients as I am sure the Bow Group’s membership would be rather perturbed to find their membership subscriptions being used for this purpose.

Let me take your points one by one. Your clients, you say, “take issue with the tone and language of your article”. May I respectfully suggest that your clients get over themselves and acquaint themselves with the definition of a diary column. It is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as: “a column in a newspaper or magazine giving news or gossip on a particular topic”. Diary columns are meant to be amusing, sometimes bitchy and often mischievous. Anyone reading a diary column reads it with all those things in mind. Apart from your clients, of course.

Your Point 1

It is interesting that you confirm that the Bow Group’s aims are to provide a forum for research and debate “in the Conservative Party”. That’s what I had thought too. However, it seems that the Bow Group is becoming the provisional wing of UKIP. Indeed, its media officer is a UKIP member and councillor. This week the Bow Group has been promoting the idea of an electoral pact with UKIP.

Yes, to say that the Bow Group is “disappearing up its own backside” is indeed offensive. It was meant to be. Furthermore, it is true, as evidenced by your clients hiring you to send me your ridiculous and totally unnecessary letter. What further evidence do I need to supply to back up this assertion? Any normal person or responsible organisation would have contacted me directly or picked up the phone. Instead your clients resorted to cowardice.

Your Point 2

When I wrote the diary column I had had at least three press releases in quick succession. Having now checked, I see that they come from Conservative Grassroots, but from the email address campaigns@bowgroup.org. Indeed, you are right, they weren’t daily. It was worse than that. I received three within two days. The subject headlines were as follows…

Cameron has lost the debate in the Conservative Party
No “loongate” investigation or SSM Amendment is insult to party members
Civil war in conservatism

It is interesting that your complaint is about the frequency of the press releases rather than to address my question, which is about appearing to consistently undermine the Conservative Party. May I respectfully suggest to your clients that by using the campaigns@bowgroup email address,, Mr Harris-Quinney is bringing the Bow Group into disrepute by associating it with the activities of Conservative Grassroots. I am astonished that the Bow Group council bows to his thirst for self-publicity in this way.

Your Point 3

I am well aware that Mr Harris-Quinney was elected chairman of the Bow Group. I have not suggested otherwise. Again, I note that you query the use of the word control, rather than the far more offensive “self-publicist”. I wonder why. Although Mr Harris-Quinney was indeed elected chairman, some seem to be taking issue with the method of his election and the conduct of his supporters. I trust you will be writing one of your imperious letters to the owner of the Blue Guerilla website, who published this comment on 28 May…

As much as I dislike Iain Dale I agree with him. I withdrew my membership of the Bow Group as soon as Ben Harris-Quinney became the Chairman as the way that his slate conducted themselves during the election period was appalling. They barred any member who did not support them from attending the AGM and over 50% of the members withdrew their support. I noted at a recent event that only 12 attendees came. In my day we managed to get over 100 people. Under Ben’s chairmanship they also held an event debating gay marriage where the police were called that the Spectator magazine covered.

A further anonymous commenter went further…

Ben Harris Quinney should not be lecturing Cameron on mandate for Gay Marriage. What little mandate he had at the Bow Group expired in October 2012. How can he justify not holding elections??? We are fast approaching June 2013!!!!

I make no comment on those allegations but they make any negative views I have expressed about Mr Harris-Quinney seem rather mild by comparison.

Your Point 4

You question my assertion that the Bow Group is in decline. I judge these things not just by Twitter followers, but by scale of influence. Compared to the 1970s or 1980s the Bow Group is a pale shadow of what it once was. I don’t know how many members it has compared to those times but if it is true that some of its events are attended by only 12 people. I stand to be corrected on this, but I am told that during the period Mr Harris-Quinney has chaired the Bow Group not a single Cabinet member has addressed a Bow Group meeting. I wonder why that is. Could it be because their views of the current leadership and mine coincide? Unfortunately it seems that this situation is unlikely to change in the near future because according to THIS page on the Bow Group website there are no more events planned for the rest of the year. For shame.

Your Point 5

Your interpretation of my article is just that – your interpretation. You used the work hijack. I didn’t. But if the cap fits. You assert that the Bow Group has no collective view. Perhaps it shouldn’t issue press releases on behalf of the Bow Group saying Ben Harris-Quinney thinks this or that, then. Presumably Mr Harris-Quinney should therefore be releasing press releases in his own name rather than that of the Bow Group, or Conservative Grassroots using a Bow Group email address.

Your Point 6

Of course Mr Harris-Quinney didn’t sign the letter. He isn’t a constituency chairman. Dear me. He attended the protest in February at Number 10. I assume he was there as he agreed with the letter’s contents or was he there just for the self-publicity? Case closed. Perhaps he didn’t attend the second one as it was the “other” Conservative Grassroots (the one with which he apparently also has legal issues). I lose track of all the people he is falling out with.

I shall be making no changes to either article. ConservativeHome took proper legal advice when Mr Harris-Quinney first contacted them on the day my diary column went live. Paul Goodman, the editor, emailed Mr Harris-Quinney saying…

Dear Ben,
I have taken specialist libel law advice, and the advice I’ve received is that the article is not actionable either by the Bow Group or yourself. However, in accordance with good practice, I’m very happy to offer you a right of reply with the same prominence. If you can send me a reply of up to 1000 words by 5pm this evening, we will run it first thing tomorrow morning – provided, of course, it is in good legal order.
Ever,
Paul

Clearly you agree with Mr Goodman’s view, otherwise you would no doubt have threatened me with a letter before action. And the fact that you haven’t makes me wonder what on earth the point of your letter was, because its effect has been to make your clients look fools.

You ask that I “bear these comments in mind when writing about the Bow Group in future.” I am in no need of your advice on what I should bear in mind when writing about the Bow Group.

As will be clear to you by now, all this letter has achieved is to bring the Bow Group further into disrepute. And if this letter has indeed been sanctioned by the Bow Group Council rather than Mr Harris-Quinney alone, that in itself speaks volumes.

Finally, I note that you are senior partner of your law firm. Could you give me any reason why I shouldn’t report you to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for breaching O(11.1), IB, IB and IB of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011? I look forward to a reply by close of play Friday.

in the circumstances I am making your letter and my reply public on my blog. As David Cameron once said, “sunlight is the best form of disinfectant”.

Yours faithfully,
Iain Dale

So there we are. Perhaps I should have indeed restricted my reply to two words. But if Mr H-Q wishes to be a prat, it takes more than two words to point out the error of his ways to him.

UPDATE

Miles Windsor, who seems to be a Bow Group bag carrier for B-HQ, is asserting on Twitter that I threatened to sue The Commentator if they published the article ConHome had turned down. As I say above, Raheem Kassam will verify that is certainly not the case. Here is the email I sent him on Monday 10 June.

Raheem
Just a word to the wise. The article by Miles Windsor was turned down by ConservativeHome because it contained several potential libels, not least against myself.

For the record I never threatened to out anyone and I have not published a book which blames women for rape. I did indeed point out that others might out hypocritical Conservative MPs if they voted against gay marriage and were found to have been having illicit affairs, but I made clear I would not do myself. I published a book by Nick Ross which did indeed talk about rape, but nowhere did he blame women for rape. Indeed he did just the opposite.

Unlike various members of the Bow Group, I don’t threaten libel action, I rely on an editor’s good nature and idea of fair play. I would be grateful if you would remove those allegations from Miles Windsor’s article as soon as possible. I also note with interest that nowhere in his article does he address the central point I made in my ConHome Diary that there are two organisations with the same name which seem intent on destroying each other.

All the best

Iain

Raheem replied “No problem Iain, thanks for the heads up.”. I left it there. Later that day the article was removed from The Commentator.

I trust Miles Windsor would now like to apologise for the lies he is spreading on Twitter. I suspect it will be a long wait!

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