Clark scores a victory but strikes a blow against the art of satire

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The Independent Online
Alan Clark, the maverick Tory MP, yesterday won a High Court injunction against the London Evening Standard, which has been publishing a weekly parody of his infamous Diaries. The judge agreed that readers might be fooled into believing him to be the author. Kathy Marks considers the implications for writers of political satire.

For careful readers of the Evening Standard, there were plenty of clues that the diaries were a spoof. The title, "Alan Clark's Secret Political Diary", with its hint of mock intrigue. The line in bold print stating that the author was the journalist Peter Bradshaw. And, above all, the columns themselves, with their ludicrous and fantastical version of events in the life of the self-confessed philanderer.

These pointers notwithstanding, Mr Justice Lightman felt the parodies, accompanied by a photograph of Mr Clark, were likely to confuse substantial number of people. "It is no defence that they would not be misled if they were more literate, careful, perspicacious, wary or prudent," he said.

The judge declared that publication of the diaries, which began after Mr Clark was selected as Conservative candidate for Kensington and Chelsea a year ago, amounted to "passing off" and false attribution of authorship. They were likely to jeopardise the MP's reputation as a writer.

He ordered the Standard to alter the presentation of the diary and to pay Mr Clark's costs. The newspaper, which faces a legal bill of about pounds 250,000, will also have to pay damages, of an amount to be decided.

Its editor, Max Hastings, remained defiant yesterday. He promised a "special bumper edition" of Mr Bradshaw's column in today's editions, to be headlined "Not Alan Clark's Diary", with the politician's eyes blacked out in the photograph.

Mr Hastings said he was disappointed that Mr Clark - "a great public entertainer" who "adores publicity" - had brought the action. "Surely Alan, the great 'economist with the actualite', the veteran enfant terrible, can't suddenly want to be thought respectable?"

He added that even if the MP "buries us in lawyers", the newspaper would still refuse to take him seriously. Mr Clark, who produced 22 witnesses misled by the spoof columns, including three Conservative MPs, told ITN that the articles had caused him "great distress ... it was a fraud because people thought I had written them", he said.

Mr Justice Lightman stressed that his judgment was not a "bar to publication of parodies". He regarded Mr Clark as a legitimate target for satire.

The best-selling Diaries, the judge said, revealed his "decidedly right- wing political views, his highly unconventional behaviour, thought processes and private life".

However, the Standard, which was not "a heavy or serious newspaper", and was likely to be "skimmed" rather than read with great attention, had "succeeded too well in making the articles look real".

Dark day for political parody

Parody, one of the most deadly weapons in the armoury of political satirists, depends for its effect on imitation. Those who make a living out of ridiculing the great and good thus fear that Mr Clark's "passing off" case could set a dangerous precedent.

This was the first time that such an action - more usually associated with counterfeit goods - was taken in relation to a spoof column or diary. And, to general surprise, it succeeded.

Mr Justice Lightman made clear that he was taking issue with the presentation, not the content of the diary. But satirists see yesterday as a dark day for political parody, which has a long and energetic tradition in Britain dating back to Swift and Defoe. Auberon Waugh, a former Private Eye gossip columnist, said: "This case sets a bad example to our profession. But the sad truth is that in five out of six cases, the law bends over backwards to help plaintiffs."

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, said: "It's all rather ridiculous, isn't it? If it was to set a legal precedent, it would be rather worrying. I hope the damages amount to no more than a farthing.

"The case should never have come to court. You get sued over journalism in this country, not over jokes. I can't imagine what Clark thought he was doing. In public life, you have to be able to laugh at yourself."

Parodies of diaries and columns have always been a staple feature of Private Eye. John Wells, who died last week, co-wrote "Mrs Wilson's Diary" and "Dear Bill" - imaginary letters from Denis Thatcher to Lord Deedes, the veteran journalist - with Richard Ingrams.

More recently, readers have been regaled with "The Secret Diary of John Major Aged 47 1/2" and spoofs of the weekly diary that appears in the Spectator.

But if people buy Private Eye, they know they are going to get satire. The magazine is unlikely to be affected by yesterday's ruling, and neither are the columns written by fictitious personalities such as Bel Littlejohn in the Guardian and Wallace Arnold in The Independent on Sunday.

Others may have more to fear. The Observer, for instance, runs "Mrs Blair's Diary", imaginary musings by the Prime Minister's wife, while the Daily Telegraph has AN Wilson's spoof Tony Blair website.

Peter Bradshaw, who writes the Clark diary, said: "I think it sets a very worrying precedent, one that politicians could use to suppress satirical criticism of themselves. Is Tony Blair now going to sue Rory Bremner for passing himself off as him? This is a victory for humourlessness."

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