Peter Carter-Ruck: legendary libel lawyer

The work of Peter Carter-Ruck during his career as a libel lawyer no doubt had a chilling effect on the media – as David Hooper wrote in The Guardian after his death in December. He was better than most at exploiting the defects of English libel law, as they existed throughout most of that time, to win cases for his clients and to earn lots of money.

But it can surely be argued that the blame for that chilling effect lies rather with the media and the politicians whose efforts to correct the more egregious defects in the law were so feeble.

Consider the series of cases in the Seventies in which CarterRuck represented Princess Elizabeth Bagaya of Toro, former Foreign Minister to Idi Amin, President of Uganda. She collected damages from papers including The Sun, The Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail which, clearly in the public interest, had accurately reported the defamatory and untrue allegations the dictator made as the reason for sacking her.

No defence was available in these cases because English law as it stood did not recognise that the media had any right or duty to inform readers and listeners of matters even if it was in their interest. Carter-Ruck’s was among the few authoritative voices raised against this. He was a member of the committee led by the late Lord Shawcross (Sir Hartley Shawcross) which in 1965 produced The Law and the Press, calling for radical reform of libel law, both its procedure and its substance.

Statutory reforms demanded included extensions of the law of “qualified privilege”, which would have provided strong new defences for the media publishing matter in the public interest, including the “republication” of defamatory matter. The media had to wait another 33 years until Lord Bingham, then Lord Chief Justice, properly recognised its duty.

Commenting in August last year, after the death of Shawcross, Carter-Ruck said: “It was a matter of great regret to me that many of the recommendations the working party made to provide a fairer balance for journalists, editors and newspapers in the laws of libel were not implemented until years later.”

In Carter-Ruck’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Libel Lawyer, he points out that in the early part of his career his libel work consisted almost exclusively in representing provincial newspapers, magazines and book publishers in settling and dealing with claims made against them. He describes representing newspapers and publishers as his “first love”, and says this work declined only when the media increasingly used in-house lawyers.

He professed an interest in the training of journalists to help them avoid libel pitfalls. His publications, in addition to his standard book for practitioners, Carter-Ruck on Libel and Slander, included Newspapers and the Law and valuable booklets for journalists.

His greatest contribution in the training field, however, was perhaps writing the chapters on defamation in McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, published in 1954. He continued to read the chapters for each subsequent edition, which were based upon those early chapters, and, when attending the launch of the 17th edition in London in July last year, received warm applause from lecturers and trainers in recognition of his generous help.

Tom Welsh, co-editor of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists and editor of Media Lawyer

Former Hampstead & Highgate Express editor Matthew Lewin writes:

Peter Carter-Ruck taught me more about the realities of libel (and how to avoid it) in one hour-long session than the sum of all the media law lectures and refresher courses I’ve ever been on.

The meeting took place in the Seventies shortly after I had had a bruising collision with a number of estate agents on a prospective house sale, and I had written a scorching feature for my newspaper, the Hampstead & Highgate Express, on the experience, likening all estate agents to rotting pond-slime – and bravely naming names.

My editor, the legendary Gerald Isaaman, didn’t even bother to waste his time pointing out the plethora of dangerous errors and highly defamatory allegations in the piece, but instead sent me, typed copy in hand, to spend an hour in his chambers with Peter Carter-Ruck.

As we went through the piece, line by line and word by word, the obstinate curtains impeding my understanding of the nature of allegation, defamation, supposition and real proof were finally lifted.

I don’t remember his exact words, of course, but they were something along the lines of: “It matters not what you know or believe to be true or feel certain must be true or is obviously true or must – as a matter of sheer logic – be true. What matters is what you can actually show to be true.

“Whenever you are unsure,” he continued, “imagine yourself in the witness box in a case potentially involving many thousands of pounds in damages, under cross examination by a very sharp and very hostile barrister who barks at you: ‘What proof do you have personally, Mr Lewin, that you can actually show us, to substantiate that allegation?’.”

It was an extraordinary experience that helped me and, I would like to think, some of my staff in later days, enormously.

I rewrote the feature, and it won a prize in the annual Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors property writing competition.

And nobody sued.

Tom Welsh & Matthew Lewin

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