CTN – 19 May 1995
Your account (CTN May 5) of newsagents' attitudes to libellous publications is misleading and offensive. There is nothing "anti-democratic and cynical" about the decision by some of the victims of Scallywag magazine's defamatory stories to sue distributors and retailers rather than the publication itself. We have absolutely no alternative.
This lying rag boasts that it cannot be sued because it could not pay the huge legal costs of any of its victims who successfully took it to court.
If CTN will put up a sum of money sufficient to cover my legal costs in a successful case against the magazine, I undertake to add Scallywag to my writ within 24 hours. If you are not prepared to do this because you know you could never recover this money from the guilty magazine, how can you dare to criticise me for being equally unwilling to commit financial suicide? The legal advice you printed on the same page as your opinion poll made it perfectly clear that newsagents are not liable for what they sell, if they have no reason to know that it was potentially libellous. They are only liable in those cases where they persist in selling material which they know, or reasonably ought to know, is dangerous.
Thus, the Suffolk newsagent you quote, who claims he "can't check every single magazine and newspaper that comes into the shop for libel" is talking nonsense.
Each of the firms I sued admitted to me in advance that it knew Scallywag had libelled the Prime Minister by falsely claiming that he was committing adultery with a caterer. They have no possible excuse for claiming to have been 'innocent disseminators' of this filthy and vicious publication.
If the law were changed to restrict liability to the publication itself, it would be possible for any enemy of one of your readers to insert the most outrageous lies about him or her in a magazine like Scallywag. He or she could then go into a local retailer's shop and see it happily making a profit selling such stuff.
On approaching the manager, the victim would be told to take it up with the magazine itself and, on approaching the magazine, the victim would be told to go to Hell, as it had no money and therefore could not be sued without irrecoverable costs being incurred.
That is the "anti-democratic and cynical attitude" which CTN appears to be encouraging.
Dr JULIAN LEWIS