Alex Wade: The Lost Libel Paradise

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, 6 July 2003

Once upon a time, libel lawyers enjoyed a special relationship with the rich and famous. In the days when London was the libel capital of the world, not a week would go by without a celebrity, or Tory politician, wondering into the office, lamenting the cruel and unjust gibes of a press not merely free but fired up on angel dust.

“How could they have written such beastly things?” So the cry would be heard from famous people throughout the land, lives ruined by allegations of misconduct, impropriety, affinity for brown envelopes and queen size beds. “It’s simply awful. Tell me, Mr Almost-As-Famous-As-Me Libel Lawyer, what can be done?”

The libel lawyer would lean back in his chair, mentally calculating how much time he would have to think about this matter at home, in the bath, at double time, and then proffer two sentences which, like the Titanic, always went down well. “A writ is what’s required. It’s the only language these people understand.” And so eager young libel lawyers would be despatched to the Royal Courts of Justice, where they would do battle with the massed ranks of legal officialdom and, on a rare, cost-effective day, emerge triumphant with a writ, duly issued, stamped, sealed, ready for service. Nowadays we have claim forms, such prosaic entities, a mere bagatelle in comparison with the good old Writ, that which led to so much money, paid by so many, to so deserving a few.

But a writ had to conform to conventional notions of fact, even if, unlike today’s user-friendly model, it did not require its solicitors to do anything so confrontational as depose to its truth. Truth, in the courtroom (and elsewhere) is an elusive beast, rather like the snow leopard of the Himalayas. You know it’s there, and it may even leave traces in the snow, but damn it, you can’t find the bloody thing. If you do, be very careful what you do with it.

The libel laws taught me this back in those heady days. There was the celebrity who said in court that his long abstinence from alcohol had been wrecked by allegations too scurrilous to repeat here. Bang, the dread words had been published, and bang, this man had reacquainted himself with the demon drink. “Only the once, m’Lord, only the once. I could never let that happen again.” He shed a tear, and for a second I believed him. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words, well, they had driven this recovering alcoholic back to the booze. Poor man. Deputised to chaperone him at lunchtime, I had suggested a coffee. We had taken the rear exit of the courts to avoid the press. Once safely round the corner, his hip flask had come out, and my, how he had drunk. And it wasn’t water.

Under cross-examination, pissed as a newt, he had been asked if he had touched alcohol since giving it all up. “Only the once.” Like all good drinkers, his imagination was flexible, sense of time elastic.

Around the same time in had flounced a sexy young thing of the small screen. Outraged by allegations that she had performed a sex act in a public place, and with photographic evidence apparently in the newspaper’s possession, she wanted to sue. “It’s disgusting,” she said, “How do they get away with it?”

“They don’t,” said the increasingly famous libel lawyer. “We issue a writ. It’s the only language they understand.”  What joy on her face. “How much is it worth?” she said. “Well, damages for a claim like this would be substantial,” said the man of libel, and then he either risked a joke, or was bettered by an unconscious craving to confront the snow leopard. “Provided, of course, that you did not, erm, perform the said sex act.”

She looked aghast. What a ridiculous question! “Of course I did!” she said. The meeting did not last much longer.

Now libel lawyers are out of fashion. These days privacy lawyers hob-knob with the rich and famous, strutting on a catwalk of the cerebellum in the shadow of their ever-so-private clients. Maybe today the embarrassed young woman could even sue for invasion of privacy. What right did a paparrazo have to intrude? Today’s privacy lawyers will know. As for the “Only the once, m’Lord” celebrity, neither privacy nor libel would get him very far. He might choose to remember what my mother often told me. “There is no truth to be found at the bottom of a lager glass.” Though I did once see a snow leopard.