Magazine facing libel case opens appeal fund

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THE New Statesman today launches a defence fund appeal to raise pounds 200,000 for costs arising from a libel action by the Prime Minister, writes Marianne Macdonald.

The fund has already won 300 supporters including the author Salman Rushdie, the television presenter Melvyn Bragg, the Labour MP Roy Hattersley, the editor of the Independent Andreas Whittam Smith and 100 MPs.

The fund-raising drive follows John Major's libel action over an article in the New Statesman's 29 January issue about the Prime Minister's friendship with a Downing Street caterer, Clare Latimer. The left-wing weekly said its motivation was to examine the 'anatomy of a smear'. Ms Latimer is suing it in a separate action.

Similar rumours were repeated in Scallywag magazine, a satirical monthly, which is also being sued by the two.

Mr Major and Ms Latimer issued writs against the New Statesman the day the article was printed. Despite a letter of regret in the following week's issue, the action continues.

The magazine has until the end of the month to prepare its defence. It has been suggested that the case could reach court in June, and Mr Major's lawyers have made it clear that he intends to go into the witness box.