Bunfights

Paul Foot

  • Memoirs of a Libel Lawyer by Peter Carter Ruck
    Weidenfeld, 293 pp, £20.00, November 1990, ISBN 0 297 81022 7

Those of us who seek to publish uncomfortable facts about our fellow human beings are constantly being plagued by the law of libel. That it is a law which most of us detest and fear should not, however, blind us to the fact that we could not do without it altogether. If no one had any redress for libel no one would ever believe a word we wrote. I cannot count the number of letters I get from people who have read my column in the Mirror and say, ‘We simply couldn’t believe your article about X and wonder if you could tell us whether he is suing you’ –or something of the sort. When I worked for Private Eye, this reaction was even more common. Private Eye, one of the very few genuinely free publications in the country, is always falling foul of the law of libel, but if there were no law of libel at all, no one would believe a word in Private Eye, and as a result some of the great scandals of modern times would not have been exposed.

If we need a libel law, then, why do we hate it so? One reason is that the only people who are certain to benefit from the British libel law are the lawyers. I have never been in a libel action without at some time in the proceedings feeling a sense of solidarity with the man who is suing me against the great army of lawyers whose pockets will be full whatever the result. No one has made more money from this branch of the law than Peter Carter-Ruck, so I opened his book eagerly to find some answers to questions which have always puzzled me. What, to start with, is the philosophy, the raison d’être of the law of libel? Mr Carter-Ruck answers the question with a quotation from Shakespeare. I print it in full, though Mr Carter-Ruck only manages a bit of it:

The purest treasure mortal times afford
Is spotless reputation; that away,
Men are but gilded loam or painted clay.
A jewel in a ten-times barred-up chest
Is a bold spirit in a loyal breast.
Mine honour is my life; both grow in one:
Take honour from me, and my life is done.

Shakespeare puts this stale little homily in the mouth of the Duke of Norfolk in the ridiculous first scene of Richard II where two young lords spoiling for a fight, Norfolk and Bolingbroke, swagger before their monarch. No one explains the reason for their quarrel. Norfolk, rather like some of Mr Carter-Ruck’s clients, seems to be an over-sensitive upper-class twit. The King has some good advice:

Forget, forgive, conclude and be agreed;
Our doctors say this is no month to bleed.

That would have been a futile course for a libel lawyer, however, since there would have been no damages, perhaps even no costs.

The Norfolk/Carter-Ruck philosophy of libel goes something like this. People have a right to redress for injury to their reputation just as they have a right to redress for physical injury, or damage to their property. ‘Spotless reputation’, they would argue, is as valuable to men and women as their life, limbs or property, and should be protected by the law in the same way. But here at once is the problem. Damage to body or property can be assessed. It may be difficult to assess the real damage to a person who loses a leg, or in the ‘pain and suffering’ (a legal expression) of someone laid low, say, by asbestosis, but judges and lawyers can have a stab at it by reckoning, for instance, how many days’ work have been lost. Sometimes damages can be assessed in the same way in libel cases. Someone might lose his job as a result of a false statement. That lost job can be assessed in money. He might lose the chance of promotion or transfer – that again would be assessable. If a defamed tenant were evicted, his loss would be pecuniary and could therefore be determined. In some countries’ libel laws, and in the British law of slander (which is defamation by the spoken word – libel is published or broadcast), the plaintiff has to prove ‘special damage’ that is, a specific loss in money terms – before he or she can be awarded money damages. There are, however, no such rules for assessing damages for libel. Libel damages are unlimited, uncontrolled by any rule or even rough estimate. Juries may award any sum they like to compensate for the wounded reputation of the plaintiff. There seems to be no real reason for this, except that those with reputations to be damaged are inclined to be rich; and that rich people are inclined to value everything, especially their reputation, in money.

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