Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lovely lady libelled?

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?


Anonymous said...

This is just starting to get heated,
wait till it hits the courts and she finds that she doesn't have a leg to stand on :>)

Anonymous said...

The Sun will have risked calling Heather Mills a prostitute because the News of the world ran an extensive report months ago detailing claims that she sold her services to arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, among others. She hasn't sued to date. There is of course a one year statute of limitations on UK libel so she's got quite a few months left to decide what to do about the Screws.
I very much doubt she'll pursue any lawsuit in the end.

Anonymous said...

At least her client wasn't a leg dealer. Seems to me the rich and famous have entirely too much time on their hands in a world on fire. The Sun, as well.

JodyTresidder said...

I am low enough to be fascinated by all this.
Don't count on Heather NOT taking action against The Sun just yet.

Yes, the tabloid libel lawyers are very, very smart.

BUT the tabloids can be - and are -caught out by their lazy habit of recycling and rewriting slurs previously made by another publication - on the grounds that the first publication wasn't sued so they reckon they've got carte blanche.

Nope, it doesn't quite work like that.

I speak from experience - though I was only after an apology, not damages - and won.

What amused me - afterwards - was how bloody whiney the libel lawyers got in private - and how they suddenly start appealing - fatuously - to YOUR sense of "fair play" as the injured party - and "let's get this silly nonsense in proportion, sweetheart" when they start to realise they don't, er, have a leg to stand on after all.

Go, Heather! (Basically!).

Anonymous said...

The Sun make up stories? Certainly not! They have a stringent system of counter checks in place. As a member of their Picture Newsdesk during the Falklands War I saw it in action. Defence corr. Tony Snow filed from HMS Invincible, mid-Atlantic steaming into the battle zone. "Rapier Missiles are carried in the hold." Kelvin MacKenzie, then Editor, yelled at me, "Get me a picture of a #*cking Rapier!"
The Picture Lib. had none. "Okay. Any #*cking missile!" They had a Trident, black and white chequered squares, coming out of the water from a nuclear sub. It had USA on the nose.
Kelvin was elated. "That´ll do." Page One was laid out. An ICBM rocket, top to bottom, heading for Buenos Aires. The headline: `HERE IT COMES, SENOR.´
Assistant Editor Ken Donlan, an old hand with experience of these things, whispered in Kelvin´s ear. "Kelvin, old boy. You´re about to nuke Argentina."
Kelvin grumpily snapped, "What´s wrong with that!"
Donlan replied, dryly, "A bit over the top, old boy." MacKenzie relented and the page was ditched. One headline missing from the legendary ones to follow like, "GOTCHA!" and "STICK IT UP YOUR JUNTA!" The war was never the same. You see, rigorous counter balances.

Anonymous said...

All I can do every time I hear Heather say anything these days is say shut up shut up shut. Doesn't she get that every time she opens her mouth she's just making the situation worse. She should just respect Paul's privacy and play this out in the courts. She's losing money every time she opens that big fat mouth of hers, so she should just lay low and wait it out -- obviously impossible for her.

The louder the screams "I'm a victim", the more people disbelieve it.. Trust me, as an ex-battered wife, you don't yell about your abuse from the rooftops, you're too afraid of the person to even admit he abused you.

Grow up Heather. You'll get enough to live comfortably and (we can hope) in anonynimity for the rest of your life, so PLEASE disappear. You're not making Paul look worse, you're just making yourself look even more horrible than we first envisioned!

Anonymous said...

vis a vis UK journalists making the facts fit the story, it seems a habit hard to break even when writing fiction. See this Washington Post review of Eve Pollard's thriller:

Anonymous said...

The Sun will probably make more money from the single issue where they have to recant their statements than the judge will offer the woman in compensation (should she win) for their unholy attacks.

McCartney has far too much money and if she's made a monkey of him then it's nothing compared to the monkey he makes of himself every time he tries to compose music without John Lennon to sort out the shitty bits for him. He should stick to buying up other people's songs.

She's a prostitute? A woman with one leg is the highest paid prostitute in the world?

Man, she must be good.

The British public makes me boak. They killed their precious princess and then forgot her. We have a very skewed view of ourselves in this country. This is we.

Only today I was in a traffic jam for an hour because of rubbernecks stopping to watch some poor soul who had crashed in the other lane.

We should just bring back public executions and be done with it.

I think it's time the courts started offering compensation in relation to company revenues. For example, if they lose this case they should have to pay every penny of revenue for every issue in which she was named.

If the Sun and the News of the World are guilty, and God knows they are, they should have to pay hundreds of millions (to charity after expenses).

Alas, our courts are a joke.

Maybe Sir Paul (not posh enough for a peerage) can play a concert at Guantanamo to finance his divorce? His head is jammed well up America's arse and only yesterday I read that a U.S. senator has declared that American prisoners would love to be incarcerated in Guantanamo. Apparently they've cooled it with torturing the people they've kidnapped.

But Sir Paul loves 'em. God bless America and Sir Paul.

Anonymous said...

I just want to draw further attention to the comment by 'a certain sinclair' (above). His link is well worth following up.

I was unaware of the existence of la Pollard's novel, and I think I was happier that way.

What, as everyone over the age of about five is entitled to say, is the world coming to?

JodyTresidder said...

"I just want to draw further attention to the comment by 'a certain sinclair' (above)."

Crumbs, iain/a certain sinclair!

It feels strange to decide a novel is entirely without merit but after reading the link...crumbs!

Anonymous said...

Ms. Ellen-

I love the way you Brits can turn a libel suit into America bashing...TALLY HO!

Do me a favor and take Sir Paul and the whole animal rights movement your country has spawned back to Britian...the only thing they'll call me will be -- deportee !!

how's that for off topic???

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