It has been remarked upon here more than once, and particularly on 12 July 2004, that the English libel laws are a minefield for writers, publishers, newspapers, magazines, and so forth.
The basic position is that, if an aggrieved party sues a newspaper (or whoever) for libel, it is up to the newspaper (or whoever) to prove that the offending statement is true. Hence if you call someone a prostitute, you had better be damn sure that you got a receipt from her, complete with details of services rendered, and, preferably, a souvenir DVD of the entire transaction.
Thus it was that, last Wednesday afternoon, while taking tea in a modest little cafe not far from my home, my mouth dropped open with amazement. I was reading said cafe's house copy of the Sun, an English newspaper remarkable chiefly for its imagination when reporting facts. (Motto: if a deadline looms, make it up; and, generally speaking, make it up anyway, because that's so much easier than going out and getting hold of the truth.)
The Sun had been threatened with legal action by Heather Mills, who is currently married to Sir Paul McCartney ( a gentleman who once, I understand, achieved fame as a member of some kind of musical quartet).
Heather Mills is a young woman who was a successful model until she lost part of her leg in a road accident, an injury which for a while generated some public sympathy. However, questions have been asked about her past, and in recent months public sympathy seems largely to have evaporated. And since the news of her impending divorce from Paul McCartney broke, it has been open season on her reputation.
Heather is fighting back, via her lawyers, threatening to sue at least three UK newspapers, and last Wednesday the Sun ran a piece inviting Heather to say which bit of their reporting she took exception to. And, just by way of reminder, they published a list of what they had previously said about her.
This list included the following allegations: that she was, or had been, a 'Hooker, Liar, Porn Star, Fantasist, Trouble Maker, Shoplifter'. And it gave details of where, when, how much, how often, and so forth. If you want to read the story yourself, here's the link.
Interesting, isn't it, that Heather seems to have made up stories about her father abusing her as a child. Well, it's interesting if you read Monday's post.
Any one of the Sun's charges would be enough to cost the paper a huge sum of money in libel damages -- unless, of course, they can prove that they're true. Since the Sun is well aware of that, one can only assume that they have chapter and verse to back it all up. Which should make for lots of copy if it ever gets near a courtroom. Sometimes, of course, these libel writs just lie there until they expire.
The Sun's boldness was sufficiently noteworthy to generate some discussion in the Guardian's media column. When faced with a tricky piece of reporting which they would love to run as their own, but are very wary of, newspapers often decide to 'comment' on the situation instead. (As do even more cautious bloggers such as I.)
I was reminded of all this hooha by this morning's Times. Now the Times is, of course (or used to be), a newspaper that you can rely on. It normally checks its facts and is guarded in what it says. But this morning, in the People column, there is a report on remarks made by Jonathan Ross when acting as MC at some music awards ceremony.
Referring to the lovely Heather Mills, Mr Ross said: 'What a f***ing liar!' (The Times's asterisks.) 'I wouldn't be surprised if we found out she actually had two legs.'
Dear, dear me. What is the world coming to?