Even by its own topsy-turvy standards, the world of libel can still
spring a few surprises on publishers. Being sued by Saddam Hussein, for
example, as the Nouvel Observateur has been this week after daring to
suggest that the dictator is a few rounds short of a full clip.
Another relative rarity is to be sued by a Royal relative - as the
Express on Sunday found to its cost when Diana, Princess of Wales,
relieved it of pounds 75,000 in an out-of-court settlement after bogus
claims about the much publicised sale of her old frocks.
Almost as unusual is to be sued by another part of the media - the
scions of which normally, although by no means always, take these things
in their stride.
For publishers, this area of law is well signposted as an occupational
hazard. Occasionally, however, intermediaries have also been caught in
the crossfire. Some of the most surprised defendants have been those in
the news distribution trade who have occasionally found themselves on
the wrong end of a writ - as WH Smith and John Menzies once were when
Prime Minister John Major took on Scallywag and the New Statesman.
Now Two-Ten Communications has found itself in the unusual position of
being sued by ITN over a press release it distributed on behalf of
The defamation law changed last September to allow both printers and
distributors a defence in libel actions, provided they can show they
took reasonable care in relation to the publication, and that they did
not know, and had no reason to believe that the material was defamatory.
Nevertheless, this is by no means a watertight get-out clause and each
case will depend on the facts. Unsurprisingly, Two-Ten says it is
currently reviewing its procedures for checking client copy.
Two-Ten’s plight is also a salutary reminder to all PR people that,
despite the fact that they are not publishers by trade, much of their
activity involves publishing - press releases and statements, brochures,
advertorials, memos and letters.
It makes no difference whether the words are your own, your client’s or
someone else’s, nor does it have to be on the front page of a tabloid to
merit a libel action. Matthew Freud Associates, as the company was then
known, was once successfully sued for pounds 10,000 over a Christmas
Perhaps it would be time well spent this week checking your own systems
for keeping the libel lawyers off your backs. Just in case you’ve
written something unkind about a dictator in a press release recently.