UK Libel News Round-Up

1. Tim Ireland has a new website, where materials about the dispute with Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov are being posted.

2. The latest Private Eye (1194) has a couple of reports about Saudi billionaire Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz, whose many lawsuits have led to the pulping of books ranging “from Spartist to Neo-Con”. Fear of the Sheikh’s lawyers has resulted in newspapers and magazines self-censoring, and “no word” has been published about his recent move against the Cambridge University Press (a subject I blogged here), despite considerable media interest in the USA. According to the Eye (page 2):

Two weeks ago the Observer was set to run a column about Mahfouz by Nick Cohen, but then spiked it after a fit of legal collywobbles…the Spectator lined up a long piece about the litigious Sheikh by Brendan O’Neill, which listed all the titles pulped…it too was spiked at the last moment!

Cohen did make a general allusion to the situation on Sunday, when he wrote that

Britain’s repressive libel laws are becoming a threat to security and racial harmony. ‘Saudi money is now a major source of income for London libel firms,’ one lawyer told me. ‘School fees and second homes depend on it.’

A second piece in the same Eye profiles Mr Justice Eady

…who has found against reporters so often that the law lord Lord Hoffman slapped him down for being “hostile” to responsible journalism in the public interest.

Perhaps this is a bit harsh – Eady did recently find in favour of Searchlight in a case brought by the BNP.

3. A bit of historical context: BBC Radio 4 has an interesting documentary about the 1967 pop song “Flowers in the Rain”, and how the band behind it ended up being sued by Harold Wilson over satirical postcards which made reference to rumours about his private life. The Times review of the programme notes that once the court case was over

There was also a ban on any reproduction of the cartoon, or any disclosure of its contents, which remains in force even after 40 years. This is an area in which the BBC has to be careful – Wilson’s former secretary, Lady Falkender, sued it last year over BBC4’s drama The Lavender List and won £75,000 – so Radio 4 muffles this part of the documentary with interference to avoid any contempt of court.

The Lavender List was scripted Private Eye journalist Francis Wheen, and the Eye reported on that at the time of the settlement, back in April (1182):

The cravenness of this capitulation is quite extraordinary. Falkender hadn’t even issued a writ – merely dispatched a letter of complaint via the inevitable Carter-Fuck [sic] and Partners.

The programme carried an allegation that also appears in a memoir by another Wilson aide, and which is has not been subject to any action:

Reports of last week’s settlement said the BBC had apologised to Falkender “for a drama that claimed she had an affair with [Wilson]…” Actually, the film didn’t directly claim they had an affair. It quoted what Wilson himself told Joe Haines: that during one of her regular temper tantrums Falkender had said to Mary Wilson, “I went to bed with your husband five times in 1956 and it wasn’t satisfactory”.* But it also emphasised that Wilson denied any such affair…Falkender’s alleged comment to Mary Wilson was repeated last Thursday in the Daily Mail, whose lawyers are clearly made of sterner stuff…

The BBC has promised never to show the programme again.

*other sources for the quote say “six times in 1956”.