Media: Aid for the people from the People's Princess

Money given in memory of a princess hounded by the press could buy legal aid for people to combat intrusion from the media

Diana, Princess of Wales was hardly the little guy; but it was the ordinary people who contributed the millions that are now gathering in memorial funds. Something should be done with that money, in her name, to give benefit to those people.

A statue would be appropriate, of course, but it would soon be cold and neglected. Nothing could be more fitting than a fighting fund, named after Diana, which would enable poor people who are damaged by the newspapers to take their persecutors to court and rip out their financial innards.

Diana probably would have loved this idea. And her brother might approve.

The libel laws in this country are stringent, thorough and powerful. In theory, those laws make it a dangerous and costly risk for the media to publish anything damaging to an individual's reputation which is not probably true in fact and demonstrably fair in intention. However, for all practical purposes the libel laws are not available to royals or to commoners. Princesses do not stoop to sue for libel; poor people can't afford to. Legal Aid is not available for libel actions.

It costs at least pounds 3,000 to initiate a libel action, which begins with the hiring of an expert solicitor to write letters of complaint and to draft a writ. Though there are lawyers who will take on a promising case on a contingency basis - taking money only if they win - most demand a hefty deposit before they will start work.

If the newspaper or broadcasting company against which the complaint is being made declines to settle the action at this earliest stage and declares a readiness to go to court, the costs immediately begin to accelerate far beyond the means of most people. They must retain a QC, who may charge as much as pounds 3,000 a day. The case must be heard in the High Court, in the presence of a jury and a senior judge. If it lasts a week or more, the total sum for which the litigant will be at risk, including the costs of the defendants, will be more than pounds 250,000. It could easily go beyond pounds 500,000.

Faced with these figures, which spell ruin, most ordinary people who are mistreated, misrepresented and mangled in the papers realise that they are powerless to get recompense from the papers, and they creep away.

Newspaper proprietors, editors, journalists and their house lawyers understand this reality in their bones. It encourages in them the most horrible characteristics of the cowardly bully, one who is always ready to strike and injure the weak and defenceless but who shrinks from challenging the rich and powerful. It is an unwritten law of much newspaper life that you can say anything you like about a person who has no money - what are they going to do about it? - but you must check every word and dilute every criticism you print about men such as Robert Maxwell, Sir James Goldsmith and Mohamed Al Fayed. Editors and journalists live in dread of writs from rich men. They do not like it up them, as Jonesy would say.

Being beyond attack, newspapers tell lies about little people. It is almost a universal experience of those who become the subjects of newspaper coverage to find that untruths, from the trivial to the monstrous, get into print and cannot be expunged.

The untruths come in a variety of forms, including the Lie Direct, the Lie Slovenly, the Lie Malicious, the Lie Mistaken and the Lie for Want of Better Research. But one feature of the newspapers' conduct connects them all: unless a writ for libel is being banged about their ears, the papers will never apologise, never correct and never retract. Editors, reporters and their lawyers habitually refuse to acknowledge a wrong even when it is blatant, demonstrable and incontestable.

If poor people had access to funds for libel actions, the media would change their habits. The fear of receiving a writ from anybody who was the subject of coverage would force the papers to clean up their act and make sure that they printed nothing but verifiable truth and defensible fair comment.

The millions of pounds donated by the public, by Elton John and Bernie Taupin and others, and now collecting interest in the banks, provide more than enough money to set up a libel aid fund which would scare the media industry out of its complacent socks.

Elton John, having won large amounts of money himself in libel actions, might be pleased to see some of his royalties from "Candle in the Wind" given to bashing The Sun and harrying the News of the World. Three million pounds set aside in a reserve fund could underwrite as many as five new actions brought by private individuals. If they won, those litigants would be expected to return a portion of their damages - say, 60 per cent - to the fund for the benefit of others. Thus the fund could be self-financing and self-perpetuating.

Some tests would need to be applied by a scrutinising panel. Litigants would have to prove not only that they had a good case in law but also that they lacked the means to prosecute the case themselves. They might also have to satisfy the scrutineers that they had not brought upon themselves the attentions of the press by flirting with fame and dicing with photo- opportunities.

These criteria would rule out many people who complain most bitterly about the conduct of the papers, including David Mellor, Martin Amis, Graeme Souness, Ian Botham and Elton John. They can look after themselves.

Such tests would also have excluded Diana, Princess of Wales herself; but if she truly was the People's Princess, then some of the money that has been given in her memory by the people may best be used for the people's benefit, in a cause that would have made her double up in that famous laugh.

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