Magazine article The Nation

Major Threat

Magazine article The Nation

Major Threat

Article excerpt

Unless they succeed in raising pounds 150,000 ($218,000) in the next few weeks , New Statesman & Society, Britain's eighty-year-old journal of opinion rounded by George Bernard Shaw and Fabian socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, may be the latest victim of the country's draconian libel laws.

The case, which reveals much about the English character, would be hilarious were its implications not tragic for the free flow of information everywhere. In brief, here is what happened. In its January 29 issue, the New Statesman ran a cover story called "The Curious Case of John Major's 'Mistress.'" The point of the three-page piece, co-written by New Statesman editor Steve Platt, was that ever since and even before Major became Prime Minister, the Brit media's nudge-wink-and-gossip contingent had run oblique references to an alleged affair between Major and his (unnamed) caterer. A veiled reference even found its way onto Spitting Image, the television puppet show. New Statesman named the unlucky rumoree (Clare Latimer) but concluded on the basis of its own independent investigation that there was not a shred of evidence to justify the rumor, and that "it is the culture of secrecy, and the particularly British culture of prurience, that gives such rumours their potency."

Major, who was traveling at the time, denounced the article as "completely untrue" (even though its import was to clear him of the false charge) and both he and Latimer issued legal writs against the New Statesman (and a satirical journal called Scallywag, which ran its own version of the story and boasts that it has no assets, is "published by the gifted, the inebriated and insane .... Any part of it may be stolen and reproduced, provided the interested party buys the editor a pint").

Hoping the litigation would be dropped, the New Statesman, already on the financial ropes, after consultation with its solicitors published a letter expressing "regret that the Prime Minister and his family and Ms. Latimer and her family have been caused any personal distress by the publication of the article." Because the article was intended as press criticism and made clear there was no basis for the rumor of an affair, the editors declined to issue an apology.

Meanwhile, Major sued the New Statesman's printers, distributors and main retail outlets; and at substantial cost to the magazine arranged to have it removed from the bookstalls and newsstands. He and Latimer then settled their libel actions against these latter defendants for an amount rumored to be in the neighborhood of pounds 100,000. The catch: The New Statesman, which lacks (prohibitively expensive) libel insurance, has indemnified its distributors et al. against libel suits, and hence, other things being equal, it is already in the hole for six (British) figures. …

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