Polanski versus 'Vanity Fair': the media verdict

The glossy that thought it had the stars in its thrall came unstuck last week. So where does the Polanski defeat leave it (apart from £50,000 poorer)? Leading magazine figures tell us
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The Independent Online

The case made me quite proud of British justice. There's no correlation in my mind at all between Polanski having slept with an under-age girl 25 or however many years ago and this libel. I thought Graydon Carter was quite outrageous standing outside the court and trying to link this incident with the case. It was quite unconnected. I'm surprised that it even came to court because it's such a very particular and horrible case. I'm surprised it ever got into print at all, in fact. It should have been headed off from the start. Vanity Fair does print an awful lot of words but this seemed to be very loose. They get top writers and top people who will talk only to them. Maybe it's an indication that they've got a bit too big for their boots. The whole thing smacks of arrogance really. Maybe they've got a bit complacent. But Vanity Fair will bounce back. I don't think they've been badly wounded but this will make them more vigilant for a bit, give them pause for thought. The damages aren't crippling but the costs of the case will be huge.

James Brown, Magazine entrepreneur and founding editor of Loaded

I'd say that if a magazine isn't getting into trouble in the courts now and again it's not doing its job properly. That should be the case with all great magazines, and Vanity Fair is the magazine which more than any other most semi-sophisticated magazine editors and even some in the tabloid area wish they could edit. It's got the money and the prestige, and the relationship with Hollywood to enable it to create a fantasy product. It combines what I call "blowjob cover stories" - the very pretty portrait of a Hollywood star - with really interesting, in-depth features. But they expect you to be very thorough. It's very much a media magazine. I'd say half their sales over here are people in the media. Not that many members of the general public know what it is. They will now, though, and that might mean the circulation going up. That's what's happened to The Spectator since all that scandal last year. Plus Vanity Fair has the only magazine editor who sports a 200-year-old hair style.

Nicholas Coleridge, Managing director of Condé Nast, publisher of Vanity Fair

I followed the trial pretty carefully and was in the court for the verdict. In my opinion the jury made the wrong decision, but it's no big deal. I think the award is low, and life moves on. I think the Vanity Fair case was really strong. The trouble is that in the end you get the 12 people that they can rustle up and these in the end have to take a view. Vanity Fair's two witnesses were terrific because they saw what happened and they described it well. But in the end it is a lottery. It's of no greater significance. Vanity Fair would have preferred to have won because they thought their case was very strong, but I doubt it will make the magazine more cautious in the future. Vanity Fair has always been a very brave and journalistic magazine and I'm sure this won't change its journalism in the least. With a different jury it could have gone a different way. The result couldn't have been predicted. My personal opinion is the jury called it wrong, but one just shrugs and rocks on. The irony is that Vanity Fair has 25 fact-checkers. It's the best fact-checked magazine anywhere in the world. They fact-check everything into submission. Here, of course, we have nothing of the sort. One of the great delights here is the lack of fact-checking. Journalists are responsible for their own fact-checking. I can't see that this trial will change that.

My main response to this case is, shucks, you know? Vanity Fair is journalistically one of the three great magazines in the world, and the fact that is has to pay £50,000 to Roman Polanski will not affect that in the least. Everyone will have forgotten about it by tomorrow morning.

Marcelle d'Argy Smith, Journalist and broadcaster, former editor of Cosmopolitan

I'm fairly thrilled with the result of the case. A million years ago I met Roman Polanski and spent time with him and Sharon, and it's true I was at an impressionable age but she was the most beautiful woman and he absolutely adored her. I could see that and the thought that he could say "I could make another Sharon Tate of you" even then was the most ludicrous thing. I can imagine someone drunk and distraught doing odd things - and I've seen men who have lost their wives do some very strange things indeed - but I can't imagine that. It's beyond the bounds of possibility. However swinging their lives might have been, they were the hottest, strongest couple and the murder was the most horrendous, ghastly, hideously upsetting case at the time.

I think Vanity Fair is a first-class magazine but I do think there were mistakes made. Had I been the editor I would have left those details out. Sometimes an editor must edit; it wouldn't have hurt the story at all.

Nikki Finke "Deadline Hollywood" columnist for LA Weekly

It has always terrified me that when you write about the history of Hollywood, where nothing is ever written down, you are totally dependent on people's memory. If they get the time sequence wrong, or the names wrong, or the facts wrong, what are you going to do? In some ways you can't blame Vanity Fair. The whole lawsuit shocked me. The stars have always gone after the traditional supermarket tabloids - they are not shy about suing them. But they are shy about suing legitimate outlets such as Vanity Fair, the assumption being that if you go after them they're never going to cover you again.

But is Vanity Fair going to stop writing about history of Hollywood? Of course not. Are they going to be more careful? They already are. This was unique to Roman Polanski, who has nothing to lose and doesn't care whether Vanity Fair writes about him ever again.

Alexandra Shulman. Editor of Vogue, a stablemate of Vanity Fair

You only go to court if you think you can win. They thought they had a good chance. The ruling won't make me more cautious because every now and again something like this does happen. At Condé Nast we are extremely cautious. I only publish what I know to be true, and more importantly what I can prove to be true.

Glossy magazines are already so careful I doubt this trial will have much impact.

Simon Tiffin, Editor of Esquire

This always seemed a strange libel case to me. No one could have seen this coming: the accident, and the timing, and Polanski trying to prove something that was said so many years ago. It seemed a bit ridiculous. From Vanity Fair's point of view, all magazines are very aware of possible libels but this one must have really caught them on a blind spot. Editors and subs would have read the piece but it just got through. They must have been very surprised when they found themselves in court. It's something you can't protect against and something like this is bound to happen again, but you can't say Vanity Fair was negligent publishing what it did.

I think it's all a bit of a non-starter, really. With everything else that is happening all around it's just a blip on the radar. But I do think Vanity Fair had good sense to defend themselves. They thought they had a case.

Interviews by Hermione Eyre, Andrew Gumbel and Naomi Marks

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