Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Exclusive Interview: The Honorable Henry Wilkins QC

The following interview is with The Honorable Henry Wilkins QC, the fictional judge of The Accidental Activist. Last Friday, we heard from Suzie Thornton and the week before from Matt Fielding – all of whom agreed to sit with me for coffee, even though none of them really exist.

 

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Henry Wilkins QC: Let me make it clear before we even begin this interview. I will not answer any question specific to the ruling of the Oilspill Libel case, as it is now known. I am a judge, a Queen’s Councilor, and proud to serve at Her Majesty’s Royal Courts of Justice. I am somewhat suspicious of blogs, of what one can or cannot write, and I am anxious to read this book by Alon Shalev – The Accidental Activist – I’ve read his other book and, frankly, I’m perturbed.

Interviewer: Let us begin with this aspect of the court case. Did you ever imagine when the two sides stood before you that first day in court that the case would last for so many years and become the longest trial in British history? Or that it would attract such a high-profile?

HW: Certainly not. The mere notion that two amateurs could take on a legal heavyweight like Jeffery Sithers and fathom their way through the complex framework of British libel laws is baffling. Of course, no one imagined that the websiteOilspill.com, would have such a profound effect or such worldwide appeal. It was the first of its kind and possibly the most impactful element when history looks back on this trial.

Interviewer: Did you ever feel that you wanted to help or advise the defendants because of this blatant inequality?

HW: Hmm, a tough question. With regard to the actual issues, I never felt a desire to support either side. I am most comfortable with the gown and wig that I wear and understand my role of objectivity, of ensuring that the law is respected.

But then I sat there for two years seeing two exhausted and frustrated young people, clearly committed to what they perceive as a better business and world model, but always outflanked, out-resourced and, certainly out-briefed – not that such a word exists.

Then at the other table sat Jeffery Sithers, the most famous libel lawyer in Britain, with seven legal aides, all dressed up in their pin-striped suits, and always prepared for what was unfolding. Did you know that the company actually provided Jeffery with a young caddie, whose sole responsibility was wheeling all their documents in and out of the courtroom every day? It made me appreciate the lad at my golf club.

Interviewer: What was groundbreaking about this case?

HW: Hmmm, I think there are two significant aspects. Clearly, it exposed the need to update the British libel laws, which, I believe, have been left untouched for 500-600 years. Second, the whole aspect of the growing role of the Internet: that such a global informational conduit could be leveraged in such a fashion, well let me tell you, it was fascinating. And, between you and me, I have tried to stay abreast of these technological advances.

McSpotlight, possibly the first interactive advocacy website was the game changer.

Interviewer: How did you feel when you saw your old nemesis, Professor McGoughen enter the fray?

HW: Ha! That old cad! I think the only time I allowed my emotions to show was the first time I saw the old fox sitting up in the galley grinning. I never thought he could be lured out of his academic palace at Oxford. He might seem eccentric to some, but let me tell you, he was a legal titan in his day. He pursued the multinationals and big businesses with a vengeance. I clashed with him many times during our careers and I hold him in the highest esteem. Still, I can’t say I was too happy with him when he pulled that stunt on me at the end of the trial.

Interviewer: Without getting into the court case itself: what lessons can we all learn from what transpired in your courthouse?

HW: Hmm. First, that the law makes everyone accountable, no matter how powerful or wealthy they might be. It must fulfill this role. Second, that the Internet has an important role of keeping things in the open, so that we all make informed choices and have the information at our fingertips.

And one effect I would like to share that this case had on me, personally. We only have one world and we are all responsible for what happens to it. It is a fragile world and getting frailer everyday.

Interviewer: Do I detect a value judgment of the court case?

HW: Good Heavens! No! Strike that from the record!

Justice Rodger Bell presided over the McLibel trial almost from the beginning. He has never offered a personal opinion on the case.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at h and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

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