Tom Bower: Desmond's 'ludicrous' libel action could have cost me £3m

Journalist Tom Bower has urged MPs to review the law on libel saying that ‘no author, or even publisher, should risk losing £3m in a suppressive libel action”.

Bower’s comments come in his written submission to the Commons culture committee’s investigation entitled Press Standards, Privacy and Libel.

A jury found in Bower’s favour in July this year after Express Newspapers owner Desmond sued over a couple of paragraph’s in Bower’s 2006 biography of Conrad Black.

Desmond said a passage in the book which claimed he ordered a negative story about Black to be published k and then backed-down in negotiations over a libel settlement implied he was a “wimp” and so would harm his business dealings.

Bower told MPs that defending the action cost more than £1m and that without the support of his publishers, and lawyers, he would have been forced to “capitulate”, saying “in which case Desmond would have been able to claim, falsely, that he was vindicated”.

Bower believes that Desmond’s libel action was really about suppressing the publication of ‘Rough Trader’, Bower’s as yet unpublished book about the press owner.

Bower said his case raises four major issues:

  • “Libel writs are being used by the rich to suppress objective discussion of the truth.
  • “Specialist solicitors are encouraged by the attitude of the courts to issue threats knowing that the cost of rebuttal by the media has become prohibitive.
  • “There is a prejudice by some judges against journalism.
  • “The administration of the libel laws lacks even-handedness.”

Arguing that the judge in the case, Mr Justice Eady, should have been able to strike the action out from the outset, he said: “For such a case to proceed, at such risk of costs, against an individual who does not have the resources of the claimant, a billionaire, risks a serious miscarriage of justice, not least because Desmond’s reputation was never seriously at risk.”

Bower said: “It was ludicrous for him to be able to suggest that anyone would seriously think he was a ‘wimp’ as the result of the words I wrote, or that it would affect him in business in any way. Desmond’s complaint was contrived to suppress the unauthorised biography of himself.

“No author, or even publisher, should risk losing £3 million in a suppressive libel action. Many people have speculated as to why Desmond continued with the case once it was clear I had financial support for my defence.

“I believe that Desmond was encouraged to proceed by the fact Mr Justice Eady refused to let me adduce evidence about Desmond’s reputation and business practices generally, since this may well have encouraged the newspaper proprietor to believe that he could exploit the Jury’s ignorance and win the case. Without that encouragement, the case may have been resolved very much sooner.”

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