An open and shut-eye account of libel

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The Independent Online
How much do you know about the law? Do you always know when you are breaking it? How good a jury member would you make? Do you even think you would shine as a barrister?

Well, here's a little test for you to find out. Read the account of the following fictional court case and then say what you think the verdict should be.

Once upon a time, there was a columnist of a daily newspaper, who found himself increasingly mesmerised by the performance of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary.

It seemed incomprehensible to this columnist that Mr Howard should ever have been made Home Secretary, since his arrogant smugness seemed matched only by his inability to become one of the great magisterial home secretaries of all time.

The columnist was not the only one who felt that Mr Howard always seemed to be making the wrong decisions - he was constantly being told by various judges and courts that he was making the wrong decisions.

The columnist therefore felt that he was not imagining things. It was true that Mr Howard seemed to be the wrong man for the job of Home Secretary. Not only did he seem smug, arrogant and unmagisterial, but he also seemed to enjoy standing up at Tory Party conferences and making rabble-rousing speeches, in which he threatened to crack down on crime using various measures, none of which appeared to be enacted, except his favourite project of building more prisons.

Mr Howard even declaimed that prison worked, although all the evidence showed the opposite. In other words, he not only seemed smug, arrogant and unmagisterial, he also seemed to have a gift for self-deception. He was also accused by various people of having knee-jerk policies - ie policies that were brought in hastily and thoughtlessly in order to appease public reaction.

Occasionally his knee-jerk reactions got him into trouble, like when he unreasonably sacked Derek Lewis, the head of the prison service, who promptly sued him for unfair dismissal. The Home Office doled out large amounts of public money to calm Mr Lewis down, a tacit admission that Mr Howard had made a big error.

Mr Howard, however, did not admit that he had made a big error. This was because he not only seemed smug, arrogant, unmagisterial and prone to self-deception, he also seemed to be incapable of ever admitting he was wrong about anything, perhaps on the grounds that if he started admitting he was wrong about the things he had been wrong about, it would take up too much of his working day.

Most of the time the columnist wrote about other things but, from time to time, he was so incensed by the spectacle of Mr Howard that he lambasted him in print, saying that he seemed to be the most smug, arrogant, unmagisterial, self-deceiving and rabble-rousing Home Secretary since homes and secretaries were invented.

Nothing ever came of this, of course. Columnists do not change things and nobody ever pays attention to them. Even so, the columnist would sometimes lie awake at night and wonder if he had gone too far. He would always be careful to say that Mr Howard seemed to be all these things but, at the same time, he felt vaguely surprised that he had never had a libel writ from Mr Howard.

One day, the columnist decided to allay these fears by, rather oddly, inventing a libel case. He told his readers that he had received a writ for libel from the Home Secretary, which he would be fiercely contesting.

He then proceeded to describe the details of the writ and, by and by, the progress of the court case, including the testimony of the main witnesses (who included Mr Lewis) and the words of the counsel involved. He also invented Mr Howard's testimony in the witness stand - a rabble- rousing effort if ever there was one.

All of this, as his readers well understood, was fictitious and frivolous. So the columnist was more than somewhat surprised to receive a real writ for libel, from Mr Howard, who claimed that he had falsely invented a libel case involving Mr Howard. Therefore, Mr Howard was suing the columnist for libel, the libel being that Mr Howard had sued the columnist for libel which, Mr Howard claimed, he had not done before although he was doing so now.

The case dragged on for weeks, and many witnesses appeared in court, including Mr Lewis.

Just as the case was coming to an end, the columnist woke up, so he never found out what the verdict would have been.

What do you think it was?