Brit Prime Minister Sues Magazine for Publishing Rumors

By O'Connor, Robert | Editor & Publisher, April 10, 1993 | Go to article overview

Brit Prime Minister Sues Magazine for Publishing Rumors


O'Connor, Robert, Editor & Publisher


The decision by British Prime Minister John Major to sue for libel over published reports about his private life has added fresh tension to the already difficult relationship between the government and the press.

Major filed suit against the New Statesman and Society magazine after it ran a cover story detailing reports of a rumored affair between him and Clare Latimer, the manager of a catering firm that serves No. 10 Downing Street, Major's official residence.

In the article, the New Statesman made it clear that, despite extensive investigation of the rumors by various sections of the media, "no one has produced a shred of evidence to suggest" that it is true.

Both Major and Latimer sued, and they won a first-round victory. Three defendants -- the magazine's printers, BPCC Magazines, its distributors, Comag, and a retail chain, John Menzies

quickly settled out of court. They apologized publicly and agreed to pay undisclosed legal costs and damages. The total payout has been estimated at around $150,000.

That settlement could jeopardize the future of the New Statesman and Society, since the magazine had indemnified the other parties against libel. Under British law, printers, distributors and retailers can be sued for libel on the grounds that each repetition of the offending words is a fresh libel. Such suits are not common.

Founded in 1913, the New Statesman has long been the main political magazine of Britain's left. It merged with New Society in 1988.

The issue that carried the Major article was the magazine's 80th anniversary number, marked by a party at the House of Commons. The magazine had printed an extra 5,000 copies of the issue.

It has now established a defense fund. After years of losses, the New Statesman made a profit of about $25,000 last year.

Major is pressing ahead with the suit against the New Statesman and Society after rejecting an expression of regret from the magazine. Editor Steve Platt maintains that the magazine committed no libel because it had made clear that there was no truth to the rumors. Major is also suing Scallywag, a London satirical monthly, over the reports.

The New Statesman said it printed the article, "The Curious Case of John Major's 'Mistress,' "in order to confront a rumor that had been circulating in political circles since Major replaced Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in November 1990. This kind of rumor, the magazine argued, "flourishes because of some of the existing restraints on newspaper publishing. It is the culture of secrecy, and the particularly British culture of prurience, that gives such rumors their potency."

To illustrate its argument, the magazine cited a number of oblique references, published and broadcast, to the rumor. Some mentioned Clare Latimer by name, without telling readers why she was considered newsworthy.

The New Statesman article also recounted a skit from the satirical television show Spitting Image, which presents politicians as latex puppets: A lonely Major is shown phoning "the catering manageress" in search of some after-dinner company. How many of the audience of seven million people, the magazine asked, were aware of the significance of this reference?

Platt said the case has attracted strong interest from overseas.

"In talking to American journalists," he said, "they are incredulous. They don't understand how it can be that a public figure in a leading position such as the prime minister can even take this sort of action, never mind pursue it in the way that he has done. The general view has been [that] nowhere else in Europe would this sort of article have prompted anything like the reaction we've seen."

Platt said he is "envious" of American libel laws. "The British press," he said, "is in many ways the most restricted and hamstrung in the democratic world."

Major's suit is unusual -- even in Britain, with its tough libel laws. …

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