Paper rejects chance of mitigation in Foot libel

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The Independent Online

Media Correspondent

The Sunday Times yesterday failed to take an opportunity to mitigate any libel damages it may be forced to pay Michael Foot by refusing to publish his full response to front-page allegations last week that he was a KGB "agent of influence".

Instead it presented an edited version, with criticism of the paper's journalistic standards and its editor, John Witherow, removed. The paper said it had edited the text because it "contained abuse and factual inaccuracies".

Last Friday Mr Foot issued a writ against the Sunday Times and Rupert Murdoch, its owner, personally for printing what he described as a "McCarthyite smear". Under the headline "KGB: Michael Foot was our agent", the newspaper alleged that the KGB regarded Mr Foot as an "agent of influence".

Mr Foot said that if the Sunday Times printed his response "without mutilation", it would mitigate the exemplary damages he is seeking. However, David Price, the former Labour leader's solicitor, told BBC Radio yesterday that what appeared was "neutered" and that unless a complete apology was forthcoming Mr Foot was "perfectly entitled" to go to court.

In an unedited version printed in the Observer, Mr Foot accused the Sunday Times of taking "to the gutter" and Mr Witherow of "having lowered still further the already debased standards of the Murdoch press".

Mr Foot added: "If this type of journalism is to go unchallenged the disease will afflict our whole public life ... If the injury they seek to inflict on the dead hardly less than the living is allowed to stand, our politics will have become dirtier still, and journalists like John Witherow will have been responsible for the degradation."

Throughout last week, and again yesterday, Mr Witherow robustly defended the story - based on allegations by Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky - pointing out that the paper was not suggesting that Mr Foot was a KGB agent, merely that the KGB regarded him as one.

He said on BBC Radio that the criticism was "an attempt by the left to try and smear us because they don't like coming to terms with their own past in the Cold War, when a lot of members of the Labour movement were hob-nobbing with the Soviet Union, a hostile power. They don't like this being dragged out."

In contrast, the News of the World, another of Mr Murdoch's papers named in the writ, apologised and paid substantial damages to Mr Foot at the weekend in one of the speediest libel settlements.