Libel action by Major fuels debate about press curbs

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The Independent Online
THE DEBATE over press regulation heightened yesterday as an angry John Major lost no time in launching libel actions against two magazines detailing rumours of an extramarital relationship.

Clare Latimer, named by New Statesman and Society, the left-wing weekly, and Scallywag, a satirical monthly, also began legal actions. Her cookery company has catered for numerous Downing Street functions.

The Prime Minister's decision to issue writs - the latest diversion from mainstream politics which also threw a shadow over his visit to India and the Gulf - met with approval from MPs, particularly Tories. The move was the result of 'contingency' plans drawn up some months ago as speculation mounted.

Both publications pledged to defend the actions after receiving writs from Biddle & Co, the London solicitors who acted for the publishers of Peter Wright's Spycatcher.

Downing Street said Mr Major would pay the costs of any proceedings, insisting the case differed from that of Norman Lamont, the Chancellor, whose legal fees arising from the discovery of a 'sex therapist' tenant were borne by public funds.

Ms Latimer, single and in her forties, issued writs through the solicitors Swepstone Walsh.

The distributors WH Smith and John Menzies, also named in writs, agreed through lawyers to cease distribution of this week's New Statesman and Society, due on the shelves this morning. The two chains sell about two thirds of the magazine's 22,000 circulation.

An 'astonished' New Statesman and Society, which went ahead with a planned 80th anniversary redesign celebration in the Commons last night, had had the article vetted by Brian Raymond, of the north London firm Bindman and Partners. Insisting it did not claim, allege or even hint that Mr Major had been involved in an extramarital affair, Steve Platt, the editor and co-author, said rumours about the relationship had been referred to in newspapers and on television under a veil of coyness. 'What we have done is to puncture that hypocrisy and discuss openly and calmly how such baseless gossip manages to proliferate.'

But the actions have been launched on the footing that repetition of rumours that cannot be proved to be true, albeit coupled with denials, is libellous.

As Simon Regan, editor of Scallywag, promised 'worse to come' for ministers in next month's issue, Duncan Campbell, chairman of the New Statesman's publishers, said he was sceptical about the action reaching the courts.

Meanwhile, the writs silence the rest of the media.

David Hill, Labour's director of communications, is to issue a libel writ against New Statesman and Society today. He said the magazine accused him recently of leaking a document to the press.

Defiant publications, page 3

Diary, page 19

(Photograph omitted)

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