By David Hooper
Extract from Reputations Under Fire: Winners and Losers in the Libel Business, Little, Brown and Company, London, 2000 (ISBN 0 316 64833 7), pages 369-71.
In 1994, Julian Lewis, who was later to become a Conservative MP, used his skills in strategic studies to put Scallywag out of business. He was understandably aggrieved by its wholly false accusations – that he was preparing a dossier on the (non-existent) homosexual activities of Tony Blair, then leader of the Labour opposition, and that he was himself a secret homosexual, transvestite and frequenter of male dens of iniquity who used women from escort agencies to accompany him to political events – but Scallywag's editor, Simon Regan, who was living on income support and disability benefit, made it clear that neither he nor the magazine was worth suing.
However, when Lewis denied these allegations, Scallywag added insult to injury by accusing him of lying, leaving him with the problem of how to nail these demonstrably false claims to protect his prospects of remaining a parliamentary candidate. Either he had to tolerate them, running the risk of a whispering campaign, or he had to sue for libel without piling up huge costs that would be irrecoverable from an assetless libeller.
Lewis decided to sue the printer, six distributors and two retailers and in the end he recovered £39,500 damages plus a much larger sum in costs. The printer and distributors could have been in little doubt as to the libellous content of Scallywag. Lewis supplied details of the magazine's distributors and printers to former police superintendent Gordon Anglesea who, as we saw in Chapter 6, had also been libelled by Scallywag, and he too sued. Lewis was in turn sued by "Scallywag Ltd" for malicious falsehood, but after he defended the action as a litigant in person without incurring costs that claim was not pursued. Shortly afterwards the assetless company was struck off the register of companies.
There was a time when a plaintiff might have brought an action for criminal libel against an impecunious publisher of such libels, but the High Court nowadays is unlikely to give the necessary leave for such a prosecution. Unable to bring a worthwhile action for libel against the magazine's editor, Lewis resorted to the arcane provisions of Section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983. He obtained taped evidence of Regan, who had set up his own website, making false statements on the Internet about his character and conduct and got Regan to admit at a public meeting that his aim was to reduce Lewis's votes at the election. The unsuspecting editor was trapped by a recording of his admission. After a four-day trial, he was fined £250 with £50 costs for a breach of this obscure electoral law.
Lewis was also able to successfully sue Regan's Internet provider, "Demon Internet Services Ltd", who paid him libel damages and closed the website. The obtaining of damages from an Internet service provider was very rare; the criminal prosecution of a person for something he had published on the Internet unprecedented. The prosecution was only possible because the libel had been published during an election campaign. However, Regan's conviction was overturned by Southwark Crown Court on the grounds that Lewis had been merely the prospective as opposed to the adopted parliamentary candidate at the time the allegations were posted on the Internet. Information broadcast on the Internet remains very difficult to suppress, and indeed the offending website later reappeared via a Dutch service-provider. But increasingly, in cases where the primary libeller is insufficiently solvent to make suing him or her worthwhile, determined plaintiffs like Lewis will have to look to the secondary libellers that is to say, distributors, printers and Internet providers – to vindicate their reputation, provided that they are on notice of the likelihood of defamatory material in publication complained of.
For more information about Reputations Under Fire, click here.
For Simon Regan's obituary from the GUARDIAN, click here.