Richard Ingrams' Week: You try challenging an editor armed with a writ

Click to follow
The Independent Online

"It is utterly impossible," said William Hazlitt, "to persuade an editor that he is a nobody." That self-importance helps to explain why journalists are much more likely to resort to law than politicians.

In my long experience of dealing with libel actions, the most persistent litigants were the editors of national newspapers. Not only did they sue for libel, but in seeking to settle the dispute they would also demand draconian concessions.

For example, the former editor of the Daily Express Mr Derek Marks insisted on an undertaking that we would not publish anything in future which was in any way defamatory of the editor of Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd. The Telegraph's editor Sir Max Hastings threatened proceedings over a totally trivial item of gossip. And perhaps the most aggressive litigant of all was that acclaimed champion of press freedom, the famous Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans (not to mention his equally famous wife Ms Tina Brown).

I mention all this because it is a former editor of this newspaper, Mr Andrew Marr, who recently obtained an injunction to prevent publication in the national press of what his lawyers described as "private" information about him.

There was nothing unusual about that. What definitely was unusual was that his lawyers insisted not only could the so-called private information not be revealed, but also that no reference could even be made to the fact that Mr Marr had been to court in the first place.

The press seemed happy to accept this unique embargo and nothing was said. It was left to Private Eye to challenge the ban, and following a climb-down by Marr's lawyers, the magazine this week revealed the fact that the injunction had been granted.

Of course, we still don't know what the "private" information is. But I imagine that anyone who can be bothered will find it on the internet.

A criminal idea from Jack Straw

If David Davis wants another item to add to his list of vanishing civil liberties, he might think about Jack Straw's latest wheeze to allow witnesses in criminal trials to give evidence anonymously.

This change in the law is, according to Straw, so vitally necessary that it will be rushed through Parliament next week before anyone is given much of a chance even to think about it.

Yet it ought to be obvious that if the expression "a fair trial" means anything at all, then you cannot allow charges to be made by people who are not identified and who therefore cannot be properly cross-examined by defence lawyers.

The case in favour will be argued, like the 42 days' detention, on the assumption that the police have got their man but are going to find it hard to make the charges stick in a court of law. The reason why so many potential witnesses are nowadays reluctant to give evidence is that they are frightened to do so. And the reason, in turn, for that is that they have no confidence in the police to protect them from possible retaliation.

The way to deal with the problem is to tackle it from the police end. But politicians, as I have pointed out in the past, have always been very reluctant to undertake any kind of radical reform of the police, though everybody knows that it is long overdue.

Hence the idea of anonymity of witnesses to make life easier for them. One only hopes that there are a few more MPs apart from David Davis who are prepared to make a stand against Straw's dangerous initiative.

* It is so rare for anyone to apologise nowadays that we ought to salute England's one-day game cricket captain Paul Collingwood.

After insisting on his lawful right to claim a run-out on a New Zealand player who had accidentally collided with England fast bowler Ryan Sidebottom, Collingwood later admitted that he had made the wrong decision and apologised unreservedly to the batsman and New Zealand skipper Daniel Vettori.

For this he should be commended. After all, he could have followed the example of Tony Blair, declined to apologise for anything and insisted that he had done what he thought was right and had at all times acted in good faith.

Unfortunately, Collingwood rather spoiled the effect of the apology by claiming that he had had to make "a split-second decision". This is a claim that is frequently made by the police when they have shot dead someone who later turns out to be an innocent passer-by.

The only difference in Collingwood's case was that we could all see perfectly well that it just wasn't true. With the New Zealand batsman writhing on the ground being given treatment to his injured leg, the umpires went into a huddle to decide what to do next. This went on for several minutes. And even when the batsman eventually hobbled off, it was open to Collingwood to call him back.

So much for a split-second decision. And so much for the long-discredited tradition of sportsmanship.

Comments