In the last episode season 3 of Sherlock, The Last Vow, Magnussen blackmails a lot of people. We are led to believe ( as in the real situation) that he has a large vault storing all the photo-graphical and written evidence of the wrongdoings of the blackmailed.

But in the end of the episode, it is revealed that Magnussen doesn't actually have any blackmailing evidence, he just has to print any news-- be it real or fake, with or without evidence-- to do the job. But I honestly can't believe this can work in real life. Suing the press for defamation and printing false news is not the hardest thing to do in UK and abroad. How can Magnussen get away with it? This is stretching credulity, unless I miss anything crucial from the show.

Is there anything from the show that would explain how Magnussen get away with blackmailing people without a shred of of evidence?

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    Part of the answer may be that he also knows where the evidence is. He doesn't keep it on hand, so it can't be stolen. Also, just knowing the secrets can also lead others to evidence. If you know to look for something, the better chance of finding it. (I'm going to delete my comments above to clean up the thread and because they're no longer relevant.) Jun 9, 2014 at 7:25
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    There is a related question. There are hints that Magnussen actually does keep physical evidence.
    – Oliver_C
    Jun 9, 2014 at 8:55

1 Answer 1


As Oliver C has pointed out, this is the very premise of his power.

Magnussen either has an eidetic memory, or (like Sherlock) has utilized his own version of 'a mind palace': where he can categorize and recall tiny, irrelevant details on command.

He clearly has access to incredibly sensitive information (as he is able to blackmail people), but his power lies in not being forced to make or collect hard copies of this information to still be aware of its existence. All he needs to do is convince his targets that he does possess the incriminating material.

As a black mirror to Sherlock, he is someone capable of incredible feats of logic and is so prescient of his circumstances that he keeps his knowledge locked inside his own mind. That doesn't mean to say he doesn't possess any evidence to his blackmail: it just means he doesn't have to keep the data/information stored anywhere where it could plausibly be accessed by someone else: in this case, Sherlock.

I see it as a commentary on the Leveson inquiry, on Chelsea Manning and Snowdon: huge organisations of power are brought down by their own paper-trail, and by them having to document and categorize their actions and dealings.

Magnussen, as a Murdochian newspaper magnate, deals in Gossip and Slander: he can print whatever he wants with the worst case scenario being some kind of retraction and possibly a lawsuit.

However, if what he prints is actually true, any lawsuit against him would reveal this to be so and as such he wouldn't face recrimination.

If he knows the information presented is true, and his target also knows the information is true; that's all he needs for blackmail.

If a Leveson style inquiry were to be launched against Magnussen, they'd come up with absolutely nothing because he leaves no data/paper-trail: which turned out to be the nail in the coffin for the Newspaper industry.

By not keeping the information accessible to any external sources, even subpoena's are fruitless. He's impervious to the law.

  • There is of course also a downside to not keeping evidence, as shown by Sherlock at the end of the episode. - Since Magnussen blackmailed powerful people, once can assume that not all of them will just roll over (e.g. Lady Smallwood hired Sherlock to retrieve the letters). What happens when they don't find the evidence Magnussen claims to possess? They will either think he hid it too well, or that he was bluffing. The second conclusion would be a problem for Magnussen.
    – Oliver_C
    Jun 10, 2014 at 10:08
  • One solution to deal with a blackmailer is to simply kill him. Why don't the people try to kill Magnussen? Well, Mary did. But Magnussen must claim to have a "fail safe": If you kill me, the information gets released! Of course, if he doesn't keep evidence, then it's an empty threat. So if someone like Mary comes along, he has nothing to bargain with, and his death won't trigger a fail safe
    – Oliver_C
    Jun 10, 2014 at 10:24
  • @Oliver_C, by keeping the information (and whereabouts of any physical evidence, if any) locked inside his head, Magnussen keeps an ace up his sleeve at all times. It is an unknown variable, and it is this variable that he is able to bargain with... as you've said, Mary did try to kill him, so it's not a perfect plan. He sews the seeds of his own demise, by letting Sherlock know what this unknown variable actually was. He quantified his own mystery. Jun 10, 2014 at 12:01
  • Yes, there is an upside to it, as you lay out in your answer, but there is also a downside. Memory doesn't work like a computer harddrive and there is good reason why it's usually wise to make backups of one's files. - An accidental head injury, old age, Alzheimers,... if he misremembers things, or doesn't remember at all, his empire will crumble. Betting everything on one card can make you, but it can also break you.
    – Oliver_C
    Jun 10, 2014 at 19:48
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    It's definitely a calculated risk, I don't think anyone is doubting that. But remember! until Sherlock reveals that he is using memory techniques, no-one else knows that this is the case. As long as his targets believe he does possess evidence, they won't move against him for fear of reprisal. He plays off fear of the unknown, which is powerful. Jun 10, 2014 at 20:56

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