Forty years old and fighting fit

No magazine has a legal history like that of Private Eye. But now, after four decades on the wrong end of litigation, it has finally secured a victory in the libel courts. By Jon Robins
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The 40th-birthday celebrations of Private Eye went ahead last week with added swing, after an unprecedented triumph in the libel courts. A thrilled Ian Hislop, the magazine's editor, described the decision by the accountant John Stuart Condliffe to end his legal action against the satirical magazine as the "high point" of his career.

"I feel very, very happy to see a victory after 10 years of this litigation, which, according to the judge, was the most disproportionate litigation he has ever seen," Hislop told the press. Condliffe had launched his action over an article by Sally Deedes published in 1992, which said that he had acted dishonestly by overcharging his clients.

It was the latest case in four decades of life-threatening litigation for the magazine but, marking a break with tradition, this time the satirists left the Royal Courts of Justice £100,000 richer.

"It's good to win one at long last," notes Kevin Bays, the partner at Davenport Lyons who has advised the country's most-sued publication for the last 16 years. "We've had cases that have fizzled out, some that have been struck out and we had a draw once – but this is the most significant victory that Eye's ever had." The lawyer reckons that they were facing a whopping legal bill of £2m, which could have dealt a terminal blow to the magazine.

But Lord Gnome has teetered on the edge of bankruptcy from the start. Geoffrey Bindman, who advised the magazine from 1969 to the mid-1980s, describes his old job as "to a very large extent" trying to persuade would-be litigants that "they'd be throwing their money away" by suing the magazine. "It's fair to say that Private Eye was extremely lucky to survive those years, because had some of those libel claims been pursued to trial, it would have gone under," the lawyer comments.

As Private Eye would put it, Sue, Grabbit and Runne of Cheapside have always done rather well out of the magazine's relaxed approach to the laws of libel. "The legal profession should be just as grateful to Private Eye as the journalistic profession," says media law specialist Mark Stephens. "It has educated many a lawyer's child." At the beginning of the 1990s, the magazine was dealing with as many as 20 libel actions at any one time. But Kevin Bays points out that "the libel gravy train" has now passed, as damages have tumbled over the last decade. Some critics say that the magazine has also mellowed with age and lost its bite.

However, the image of the magazine permanently residing in the libel courts has always been a myth, and Bays reckons that he has only been in court "half a dozen" times with the magazine. "Most of the claims that are brought against the Eye haven't got anywhere near the courts. Either they settle, we pay or they go away," he says. Nonetheless, Hislop revealed recently that £800,000 of the publication's £3m annual turnover was spent on legal fees. No lawyer has benefited more from that than Peter Carter-Ruck and his firm. He lists, off the top of his head, 10 clients who have sued the magazine over the years, including Cecil Parkinson and Randolph Churchill. Unsurprisingly, the solicitor has mixed feelings about the mag. "They've exposed some cases of corruption and fraud, and to that extent they have made an important contribution," he says. "But I think their unfortunate personal attacks on people didn't do the much good, except they probably sold copies."

The first time the veteran libel lawyer sued the magazine was in 1963 on behalf of Randolph Churchill. "When Churchill first complained, they were telling everybody they were a '£100 company' and he wouldn't get anything," he recalls. Pleas of poverty did not stop Carter-Ruck, who sued everyone he could – the company, Peter Cook as principal shareholder, Richard Ingrams as editor and "all those concerned with the production of Private Eye".

The solicitor believes that his own role in the magazine's history has not done the fortunes of the magazine too much harm. "I think the litigation helped them, whether or not they resented being sued, because in effect it drew attention to the magazine," he says.

The magazine has always relished abusing the lawyer and his firm, and Hislop took a gleeful pleasure in noting that Condliffe was a client of "our oldest adversaries". At the Law Society conference in 1999, the editor and the solicitor went head-to-head in a debate on libel law. When a photograph of the two was suggested, Hislop was heard to say: "Only if I can have my hands round his scrawny little neck."

Libel lawyers believe that the magazine has made an impact upon the law over the last 40 years. As Mark Stephens puts it: "They've exposed the hypocrisy in the libel laws that allowed scoundrels to come into the courts with the intention of trying to get a clean bill of health for their reputation."

Certainly, the magazine took on those libel litigators that have otherwise effectively used the law to muzzle their critics. Business tycoon Sir James Goldsmith issued over 60 libel writs in 1976 against the magazine and 37 of its distributors. He also resurrected the law of criminal libel in his attempts to sue the magazine out of business.

Desmond Browne QC, of 5 Raymond Buildings, was advising the magazine at the time. He pays tribute to editor Richard Ingrams, and to the other writers who faced criminal charges, for "not losing their nerve" in the face of "overkill".

"The outrage that people felt at the perception that Goldsmith was trying to destroy the magazine meant that no one else, with the possible exception of Robert Maxwell, was so heavy-handed again," Browne says. Geoffrey Bindman believes that such oppressive use of the law to hound distributors eventually led to the Defamation Act 1996, which provides a defence to the innocent disseminator of a libel.

Last week also marked the anniversary of the death of Robert Maxwell. In 1986 Maxwell won £55,000, after the magazine claimed that he had funded an overseas trip for Neil Kinnock so that he would be recommended for a knighthood.

The magazine's old proprietor, Peter Cook, was on hand to raise flagging spirits. Maxwell called upon a series of character witnesses to establish his good name, including the Lord Chancellor, Lord Elwyn-Jones and Michael Foot, the former leader of the Labour party. After one gruelling morning in court, Cook came up with the idea that the Eye needed someone to vouch for its own good name. "He thought about it for a while," Kevin Bays recalls. "Suddenly, he said 'Right, I know what we'll do, we'll call Myra Hindley'."

In the end it might not have made much difference. The magazine had to pay £50,000 punitive damages because, according to Bays, the jury felt that Private Eye had "not behaved well". "One of our witnesses was asked if the Eye ever told lies, and they said: 'Yes, they're called the apologies'," he recounts. "That might have been a turning-point in the case."

The last time Robert Maxwell issued a writ against Private Eye was in October 1991, over an article alleging that he had misappropriated large sums of money from the Mirror Group pension fund. Now we all know about the missing funds. A fortnight after that writ was issued Cap'n Bob, as Maxwell is dubbed in the magazine, fell off his yacht, bringing the case to an early end.

The Condliffe litigation might not be on a scale to compare with some of its epic libel battles, but it illustrates that the Eye is still prepared to go down fighting. "I don't think that Ian Hislop has ever deliberately stuck his head over the parapet," Desmond Browne notes. "But on the other hand, he has been extremely brave in fighting a case that was immeasurably hazardous in financial terms, and without any issue of pubic interest or principle arising from it."