Monday, July 12, 2004

Peter Carter-Ruck -- aka Carter-Fuck

Peter Carter-Ruck (who died in 2003) was an Englishman and a libel lawyer. Hence he was (a) always busy, and (b) rich. Towards the end of his career he published a sort of autobiography: Memoirs of a Libel Lawyer (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990), a book which, though long-winded in places, is not without interest.

Carter-Ruck was born in 1914, and began to specialise in libel soon after the second world war ended. In his memoirs, he points out that libel has a long history: in ancient Rome the offence was publishable by death, and in 1585 the Chief Justice of England complained about the steady growth in the number of actions for defamation.

Despite the long history of the 'offence', English law provides what is, to my mind, a curiously loose definition of it. Libel and slander both involve defamation, and the best-known working definition of defamation is the following:

A statement concerning any person which exposes him to hatred, ridicule or contempt or which causes him to be shunned or avoided or which has a tendency to injure him in his office profession or trade.
This gives more than ample scope for anyone who is offended by almost anything to take action under the law. And they do, in their hundreds, it seems, every year.

A mere misplaced comma can cause endless trouble. In one case a newspaper wrote: 'Miss Y went to the caravan, where she was living with Mr X.' The reporter should have written: 'Miss Y went to the caravan, where she was living, with Mr X.' Or, better still, the reporter should have rephrased the sentence entirely, along the lines of 'Miss Y was living in a caravan at the time. She took Mr X to that caravan.' In any event, Miss Y was offended by the suggestion that she was cohabiting with Mr X, and the newspaper had to pay up.

In other words, from a writer's point of view, the law relating to libel provides a dangerous minefield, into which you venture at your own risk. Carter-Ruck's advice to writers is simple. To be certain that you will never be liable to pay damages for libel, you should 'refrain from writing, printing or publishing or distributing any written matter of whatsoever nature.'

So that solves that problem. Never let it be said that this blog is not useful.

Another interesting remark from this author is his comment that it is always important to have first novels read for libel. They are, he says, 'so often autobiographical and so often introduce fiction to enhance the story, the author overlooking the identifying details.' In other words, it is not much of a defence to cry 'But this is fiction!' if it is perfectly obvious to all your friends who you're writing about. And it is especially not much of a defence if the easily recognisable parties are depicted doing some naughty things over and above what they actually got up to in real life.

Yet another tip -- and, like the one above, it is something which you would have thought was fairly obvious but which is often overlooked. If you must write a novel, and you feature a doctor or a lawyer or an army officer, for God's sake check the official lists of these people and choose a name which isn't there. If you write a whodunit in which the murderer is a Dr Smith of Clapham, you really can't complain when an actual Dr Smith of that parish takes a dim view. But, as Carter-Ruck points out, even the BBC neglected this elementary precaution on one occasion, with expensive results.

The bulk of Carter-Ruck's memoirs are given over to accounts of famous libel cases in which he was involved, either acting on behalf of the allegedly libelled party, or on behalf of a newspaper or magazine.

Some of these cases make for entertaining reading, recalling as they do some of the great eccentrics of the recent past. Through these pages wander such luminaries as Randolph Churchill (son of Winston, and a fairly regular visitor to the libel courts), Professor Harold Laski (a mouth-frothing Socialist of the old school, disowned even by the 1945 Labour Party), and James Wentworth Day (a unreconstructed patrician, but absolutely no sort of fool). Amusing though these accounts of past cases are, one always has to remember, of course, that it was not quite so entertaining to be involved in such a case oneself.

Carter-Ruck was not solely involved in libel. He also handled obscenity cases, and he was the lawyer who advised George Weidenfeld that it was safe to proceed with the UK publication of Nabokov's Lolita in 1959. This was, let's face it, a pretty bold piece of advice, because the obscenity laws in the UK were in a pretty chaotic state at the time, and no UK printer would touch the book.

Another of Carter-Ruck's legal specialisms was copyright, and he was involved in the extraordinarily complicated saga of the film rights relating to some of the James Bond books -- an enterprise so complicated indeed that I will not attempt to summarise it here.

Carter-Ruck does not seem to have been an easy man to work with. For the first few decades of his professional life, he traded, so to speak, as the senior partner in Oswald Hickson Collier and Co. But by the late 1970s there were severe strains within the partnership. In 1981 Carter-Ruck finally walked out, taking several other employees and 1,500 client files with him. Never a particularly sensitive man, he set up shop as Peter Carter-Ruck & Partners, in the very same building as the firm he had just left. Within a few years, however, all those who had founded the new firm with him had left -- including his daughter.

Perhaps it is necessary to add that Carter-Ruck's most lasting fame derived from his almost perpetual battles with the magazine Private Eye, which invariably referred to him as Carter-Fuck. When he once asked them not to use that name, they substituted Farter-Ruck instead.

Carter-Ruck -- or whoever -- died on 19 December 2003. The obituaries were unusually frank. The Telegraph's version was fairly straightforward, but the Guardian's (registration required) was brutal. It was written by David Hooper, a former partner.

Hooper described Carter-Ruck as 'a chancer, out for the maximum fee', and a man 'who did for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen.' Hooper related that, when he challenged the head of the firm about an apparent piece of double-dealing, Carter-Ruck 'proved unable to give a truthful explanation.' In another instance, a client who lost a case which Carter-Ruck had encouraged him to pursue was told 'a pack of lies.' These are unusually strong verdicts on a man not yet buried.

The comment which I like best, however, was the one offered by the solicitor Oscar Beuselinck. Carter-Ruck, said Beuselinck, had 'that English look, where they smile at you and cut your balls off.'