Press watchdog rejects inquiry on Major 'smear'

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The Independent Online
A SENSE of being wronged enveloped staff of New Statesman and Society yesterday after the Press Complaints Commission dismissed the magazine's appeal for a full investigation into the 'Major smear'.

Steve Platt, the editor, maintained the 3,000-word article which prompted writs from John Major and Clare Latimer, who runs a catering firm, had been misunderstood. A single-line fax message from Lord Macgregor, chairman of the PCC, dismissed a plea for an inquiry.

'My feeling is that it is still something that a non-statutory body should be looking at, if only to provide guidelines for the future,' Mr Platt said.

The magazine had asked for coverage of the rumours circulating about Mr Major's private life over the past two years to be investigated. It wanted a ruling on whether publication of repeated hints and innuendoes which could not be substantiated was in the public interest and whether the 'immense journalistic effort expended on trying to stand up the rumours', accorded with the principles of responsible journalism.

More importantly, it also wanted the commission to say how a responsible press could put an end to false and damaging slurs without attracting a libel writ.

A final element in the investigation request was an examination of the source of the rumours, as it was believed they originated within elements of the Conservative Party hostile to the Prime Minister.

Mr Platt offered a fulsome apology for any misunderstanding generated by press coverage of the article. He said that the article said clearly that not a shred of evidence existed to allege that Mr Major had been involved in an extra-marital affair.

'We deeply regret that the impression has been given that we smeared the Prime Minister. Our intention was quite the opposite - to demolish persistent rumours that have surrounded him since he took office. We are sorry if anyone has been led to believe otherwise by the press reports of the article and deeply regret any embarrassment that may have been caused to him and Ms Latimer,' he said. But the magazine attacked the Prime Minister for issuing libel writs against the printers, distributors and retailers of New Statesman and Society.

Mr Platt said it was an attempt to gag the magazine. The public had the chance to read many interpretations of the story in other newspapers, but did not have the chance to make up its mind on the original.

'This is a form of prior restraint and raises serious issues about press freedom. In addition, the magazine's finances have been severely hit and will continue to be, even if the question of libel is never tested in court.'

The expectation of a large legal bill has led New Statesman and Society to set up a fighting fund to contribute to its costs.

A spokesman for Scallywag, a satirical magazine which also received writs from Mr Major and Ms Latimer, said it had received several offers of free advice from lawyers. 'We've taken three or four calls today all offering to help us for nothing. They are all very kind and we shall be getting back to them in the next few days.'