Suit alors! Barclays hoist by their own petard

By Dominic Ponsford

As the Barclay Brothers continue to pursue The Times through the French courts over an alleged criminal libel, one of their own newspapers has been hit by the same legal ploy.

Jim Carr, the estranged father of comedian Jimmy Carr, has won £12,000 from the Sunday Telegraph after threatening to sue it through the French courts.

News of Carr’s legal victory against the Telegraph appears to bear out a warning from Times editor Robert Thomson this week that use of the French courts by British libel claimants sets a dangerous new precedent.

Carr senior launched proceedings after a 12 November interview by Nigel Farndale in which the comedian suggested his father was a bad parent.

Carr initially tried the conventional route and heard nothing for several weeks. He then threatened to go through the French courts and said he got everything he asked for in a matter of days.

Like the Barclays versus The Times, he was prepared to argue that the article in question was published in France because a small number of Sunday Telegraphs are available across the Channel.

Carr told Press Gazette: "The Telegraph quoted my son as saying that he and his older brother were given custody of my youngest son. That’s completely untrue.

I found it offensive, there’s a whole history behind this.

"I got my lawyers to write to the Telegraph and request £10,000 and an apology. I then saw that the Telegraph were fighting to sue The Times and that they’d decided to go to France because defamation is a bigger crime in France, so I wrote to them and said stop dragging your feet or I’ll sue you in France.

"They quickly offered to settle for £10,000, but I said because they had equivocated it would have to go up to £12,000."

After an initial letter sent on 7 February received no response, Carr’s lawyers wrote again to The Sunday Telegraph on 20 February saying: "My client has noted that the owners of your paper have sought fit to institute criminal liable [sic] proceedings in France against another newspaper; my client will accordingly take advice as to similar proceedings against your paper, for the cruel liable [sic] which has been inflicted upon him."

Within days the Telegraph had agreed to an apology and damages of £12,000.

The Barclay Brothers filed proceedings for criminal libel against The Times in a Paris court last April.

The action relates to a November article headlined "Twins who swoop on owners in distress". It appeared as part of a series of articles in The Times that investigated the Barclay brothers’ business interests.

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.

Times editor Robert Thomson and media editor Dan Sabbagh are both named in the writ, and there is a chance that former Times business editor Patience Wheatcroft, who will soon start work for the Barclay brothers as editor of The Sunday Telegraph, could also give evidence.

Last Thursday, a French judge ruled that the Barclays did have the right to sue in a French court, but refused their "right of reply" on a technicality.

Robert Thomson said: "British journalists, including journalists at the Telegraph Group, will be arguing in a Paris court in French over the nuances and subtleties of stories written in English.

"The merits of the parties to the case aside, potential litigants with grudges against the media will be rubbing their hands in glee in anticipation of cases to come."

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