The cold, unloving, rubber-insulated News of the World
Whatever happens, one must avoid the temptation to gloat. Seven years ago the News of the World's legal department was unkind enough to set its lawyers on me on behalf of one or another of that newspaper's itchy-bottomed editors. Need- less to say, the editor had been sacked long before the case came up. In the event, he grabbed the token £250 which Private Eye paid into court as protection against costs in the event of nominal damages, and ran for it. As a souvenir of the case, and of the enormous unpaid effort I put into it, I have a fat file, headed by the High Court Writ and a Statement of Claim composed by News of the World lawyers:
In issue no 242 of the said magazine dated the 18 January 1980 on page 19 the second Defendant wrote and each of the Defendants falsely and maliciously published of and concerning the Plaintiff in the way of his said office the following words:— 'Readers of Private Eye whose grandparents or aged family retainers still take News of the World, the geriatric wankers' weekly, may be puz- zled by an item in its John Field col- umn . . . .'
It would have made a grand case in court, but nothing, I imagine, to approach the impending case of Archer vs News of the World which was the apparent subject of an extraordinarily defiant leader in last Sunday's newspaper. Under the heading, `The truth, the whole truth', the NoW said:
On Sunday October 26 1986, the News of the World printed a detailed and scrupulously researched report that Jeffrey Archer, the then deputy chairman of the Tory party, had paid a prostitute £2,000 to leave the country. The story is as true today as it was the day we published it . . . .
Today we stand up again. We stand up to say to the really important people in this case — our 13 million loyal readers — we stick by our report. Nothing more and nothing less. For us, it is a Matter of Honour.
Fine, fighting stuff. From the case of Archer vs The Star we know all about the detailed and scrupulous research which went into the News of the World report. It included hiring a prostitute to telephone Archer and tell him a pack of lies, record- ing the conversation and then setting up a trap in which his representative could be photographed handing over the money. Without the 'research' there would have been nothing to report, since the incident was entirely set up by the 'researchers'.
None of which is strictly relevant to the question of libel, although these irrelevant considerations have an awkward way of creeping into a judge's summing up and a jury's award of damages. Archer's case against the News of the World would appear to differ from that against the Star in that the News of the World did not state in so many words that Archer had had sexual intercourse with the prostitute. The first question for the court to decide may be whether or not the newspaper's report carried the natural implication or innuendo that he had done so. Nor is there anything to prevent a second jury deciding, if it is asked to do so, that such an innuendo, if made, would have been justified — that Archer, on the balance of probability, did have cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel with the prostitute Cogh- lan — even though another jury, under Mr Justice Caulfield's guidance, found the opposite.
It all promises to be great fun, and could easily go either way, although I must admit that if I were the plaintiff I do not think I would be much interested in any proposals for a settlement out of court which gave me less than £11/2 million clear. My calculation on this matter would not be based on any estimate of the strength of the plaintiff's case in law, but on a study of all the prejudicial material which has appeared in the reporting of the Star case (which was privileged), and above all on a study of the workings of the libel courts — of which the Star case is only an extreme example which leads me to suppose that cases are
`Look through our invoices to see what weapons they've got.'
settled not so much by reference to the law of libel, as by a sympathy vote. And who is going to sympathise with the News of the World or Mr Murdoch?
Our natural glee at the News of the World's discomfiture should not blind us to the fact that the judge's conduct in the Star libel action was a scandal. Perhaps he can be excused for his extraordinary eulogy of the Archers — 'They are blessed, no doubt they would say, with two sons, who are possibly at their most attractive ages and interesting periods of 13 and 15' — or his bewildering remarks about the witness Aziz Kurtha and his colour blindness:
You may think that Aziz is the foundation of the case against Archer. His name is not Peter, it is Aziz. But is it a case, or is it not, of 'Thou art Aziz, and upon thy rock will I build this story,' if it is a rock?
Goodness knows what the jury was supposed to make of that: it would sound harmless enough if it did not ignore what the libel action was all about. Kurtha's evidence was not the foundation of any- thing, and there was no case against Archer. Archer was bringing a case against the Star: the basis of it was the word of a politician against the identification evi- dence of a solicitor and a prostitute, with the jury being asked to decide whether, on the balance of probability, a man who gives a prostitute £2,000 to leave the country does so because he has had intercourse with her and is frightened of exposure, or because he is nervous of false witness and feels sorry for her. It was the £2,000 payment which was the foundation of the defence; the judge devoted only a few lines of his summing up to the incident, and none at all to its possible implications.
Many may feel that the behaviour of the Star (borrowing from the work of News of the World reporters) was so vile that some sort of rough justice has been done. It is hard not to disagree. There should indeed be a law against the hounding and entrap- ment of private citizens. Personally, I would like to see Mr Murdoch and all his editors and the editor of the Star debagged and dubbined and made to stand in the stocks until we grew bored of contemplat- ing them in that position. There ought to be a law but there isn't one, and it is as wrong to use the libel law for these purposes as it would be to use the equally absurd laws of Sunday trading to punish a dope dealer.