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Will British Libel Law Intimidate U.S. Publishers?

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Will British Libel Law Intimidate U.S. Publishers?

Article excerpt

The important issue of the India Abroad case, according to columnist and author Anthony Lewis, is: Will American publishers be as intimidated by the threat of British libel law as the British press has been?

The British press clearly has been intimidated, he says. To get an idea of how intimidated, and how plaintiffs use Britain's stringent libel law to suppress public discussion of important matters, Lewis points to Robert Maxwell. In a recent New York Times column, Lewis says libel suits were a tactic of choice the late British publisher used to cow those who questioned or criticized him.

Maxwell brought 21 libel actions over two unauthorized biographies of him, Lewis said. He sued BBC, Rupert Murdoch, six British newspaper editors, American reporter-author Seymour Hersh, and the U.S. magazine New Republic.

Over the years, Maxwell built a reputation for being ready, willing and able to sue. In England, where it is comparatively easy to collect on libel suits, covering Maxwell critically could be risky financially.

In retrospect, that may have allowed Maxwell's multibillion-dollar house of cards to escape the scrutiny it deserved.

Only after he died in November - and his highly leveraged empire quickly unraveled - did the world realize how precarious his empire was. But it was too late to protect an estimated $1.4 billion from being siphoned from pension funds and other assets of his two publicly traded companies in a desperate attempt to avoid collapse.

"There's no doubt Robert Maxwell made use of British libel law to intimidate and to silence many journalists and writers whom he considered to be hostile," said Alan Friedman, a New York-based reporter who covers the unfolding Maxwell scandal for the Financial Times of London. …

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