Major libel settlements jeopardise 'Statesman'

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The Independent Online
THE New Statesman and Society is on the brink of financial disaster after the magazine's printers, BPCC, its distributors, Comag, and the newsagents John Menzies reached an out-of-court settlement yesterday in the libel actions brought by the Prime Minister and Clare Latimer, a caterer.

Because the left-wing weekly indemnifies the three defendants against actions arising from its contents, the magazine could face a bill estimated at more than pounds 100,000, although it played no role in the High Court settlements and will continue to defend the actions on its own behalf.

At least one of the defendants has told the New Statesman that it will enforce the indemnity.

The settlements have not been disclosed but are thought to be a high four-figure sum for each plaintiff against each defendant. That would come to about pounds 50,000, and legal fees are estimated at as much again.

The decision by the three to settle, with an apology and damages, means that the New Statesman has no realistic alternative to fighting the case to the end.

'It has become a battle for the survival of the magazine,' said Steve Platt, its editor. Yesterday's issue carried a full-page appeal for funds for its defence; but its only realistic hope of remaining solvent is a favourable judgment.

Already saddled with the others' bills, it could not afford to pay the damages that, along with a full apology, Mr Major and Miss Latimer are seeking. Its only hope is to win the case and be awarded costs. It has already incurred more than pounds 15,000 legal fees.

Mr Major and Miss Latimer both said they planned to pursue their actions. The satirical magazine Scallywag, also being sued, is determined to have its day in court. A spokesman for the sixth defendant, the newsagent W H Smith, would not say whether it planned to settle.

Printers, distributors and newsagents are held liable for distributing defamatory publications but, because they cannot check the contents of everything they sell, are seldom served with writs. The danger in agreeing to pay damages is that future libel litigants may be encouraged to include them in actions.

BPCC said that it was 'monstrously unfair' for it to have been involved in the case, and said that the law should be changed.

Until three years ago, the New Statesman was insured against libel damages, but cancelled the policy because of the expense: it cost pounds 40,000 a year and the magazine was still liable for the first pounds 10,000 of any claim.

The magazine said that it would seek to convince the court that its article two weeks ago, examining rumours of a relationship between Mr Major and Miss Latimer, had made it clear that such rumours were unfounded, and was not defamatory.