Michael Davie

  • Public Scandal, Odium and Contempt: An Investigation of Recent Libel Cases by David Hooper
    Secker, 230 pp, £12.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 436 20093 7

Years ago, the Sunday newspaper I had joined as a junior reporter sent me one Saturday afternoon to see Sir Thomas Beecham, then at the height of his fame as a conductor. The paper had written his profile, and I was told to take a proof and show it to him, to ensure that it was factually correct. Clutching the galleys, I rang the bell at his house in St John’s Wood. Sir Thomas himself opened the door. He did not seem friendly. However, he allowed me into his drawing-room, though without offering me a chair, and himself sat down and began to read. Never before or since have I seen anyone so slowly and yet so inexorably come to the boil. His face flushed, his back straightened, and his eyes widened. Then he rose to his feet, and finally he exploded. ‘If this article is published, young man I shall sue your newspaper for one hundred thousand pounds.’

A hundred thousand pounds seemed a lot of money in those days. Controlling my instinct to bolt, I must have stammered out some question about the nature of the libel he was sure we had committed. In answer, he picked up a pencil, scratched at the proof, and thrust it back at me. ‘Take this to your editor.’

In the taxi, I examined Sir Thomas’s pencil scratchings. One of them occurred early in the article, where it said that the founder of the Beecham family fortunes had started his business success by selling Beechams Pills under an umbrella in the streets of Liverpool. The other scratch indicated a passage saying that Sir Thomas had an imperfect understanding of Wagner. Back at the office I hurried in to see the editor. By now it was half-past four and the first edition was due to go to the printers at half-past five. In the editor’s office, I found not only the editor but the business manager, both happily unaware of the catastrophe about to strike. I blurted out my tale. To my astonishment, neither man appeared in the least disturbed. The manager smiled. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘An action for libel between Sir Thomas Beecham and the Observer ... the publicity value would be very great. It would do us nothing but good.’

For a few minutes, the atmosphere in the editor’s office was almost euphoric. In those days, newspapers used to divide libels into ‘good libels’ and ‘bad libels’. The distinction was between actions that would allow the paper to appear in a good light – fearless, champion of the liberty of the press and of the people’s right to know – and actions that made a paper appear in a bad light – vindictive, careless, trivial. Here, obviously, in respect of Sir Thomas, was a ‘good libel’.

Slowly, however, doubts crept in. Suppose the paper really had libelled the great man? Lawyers were telephoned. I did not make the calls but I became aware that caution was being advised. The facts might be true about the ancestor and the umbrella: but were they perhaps being phrased in such a way that they tended to bring Sir Thomas into ridicule? And Wagner: might not that reference seem to reflect adversely on Sir Thomas’s competence and musical knowledge? Might not some impresario planning a concert by Sir Thomas read the article and, if Wagner was on the prospective programme, change his mind? Was the Observer sure that no such concert was in the wind?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in