By Dominic Ponsford
The Barclay brothers claim to be responding to an "orchestrated attack"
on their reputations by issuing criminal libel proceedings in a
French court against Times editor Robert Thomson and media editor Dan
The move means The Times pair could face possible
imprisonment if the action succeeds. But, according to media law
experts, it is far more likely to result in a relatively small fine if
they are found guilty.
The French court summons was served on The Times by a British policeman at 5pm on Tuesday.
immediately issued a statement condemning the move, saying: "This is a
genuinely sad day for British journalism. Whatever his failings, it is
difficult to imagine Conrad Black pursuing a criminal case of this kind
in the French courts.
"If newspaper proprietors such as the
Barclay brothers think it is appropriate to launch this extraordinary
case, what signal does it send to more vexatious litigants who would
seek to silence the media?
"They were quite entitled to bring a
case under British libel laws, which are among the toughest in the
world, but have chosen, instead, this unusual course of criminal action
which sets an unfortunate precedent for all media, and not just British
"This really is a remarkable breach of tradition and
made even more remarkable by the fact that the case has been brought by
newspaper owners. No doubt the journalists at The Daily Telegraph
itself will have cause to lament this legal legacy."
relates to a November article headlined "Twins who swoop on owners in
distress". It appeared as part of a series of articles over several
days in The Times which investigated the Barclay brothers' business
The twins dispute the suggestion in the article that
they "take advantage of owners in distress" to buy businesses "on the
cheap". They maintain that all of the 14 acquisitions they have made
since 1981 have either been public companies or businesses bought in
open market competition.
A source close to the twins described
The Times articles of November as "an orchestrated attack trying to
discredit them as the new proprietors of The Telegraph".
understood they have filed the action demanding a right of reply under
French law because they thought they would get a quicker result after
The Times refused to publish a correction or clarification following
Mark Stephens, head of media litigation at Finers
Stephen Innocent, said: "In just the same way that we've seen libel
tourism with Russian businessmen, Middle Eastern businessmen and film
stars from around the world coming to London to launder their
reputations, I think this may be the advent of a new form of libel
tourism where people take the prosecution to Paris in order to take
action against British newspapers.
"It does seem remarkable that
two British nationals whose first language is English sue this
country's newspaper of record in a French court where everything will
be conducted in French for criminal libel."
Private Eye this week
published a correction following legal letters from the Barclays,
expressing regret for errors in an article which wrongly suggested
minders for the brothers had brandished guns at holidaymakers.