Death of a writ master

Independent, Tuesday December 30, 2003

Some two months before his death from cancer on 19 December, Peter Carter-Ruck was proving elusive. He had just taken a well-publicised position as a consultant with West End media firm M Law, whose clients included Lennox Lewis, Elle, Red and Hello! magazines, and this seemed a good opportunity to profile the man who was the last colossus from the days when London was the libel capital of the world, whose name was revered and feared in equal measure.

But Carter-Ruck did not want to play ball. It took many days of cajoling, sending polite emails and reassuring a mutual friend that I was not intent upon writing a hatchet job before he agreed to speak to me. Why, though, would I risk writing anything negative? This was the man whose steely glare had launched a thousand libel writs and the last thing I wanted to do was get myself and The Independent sued.

Still less did I have any axe to grind, but Carter-Ruck was not convinced. "Isn't he the chap who used to work at the firm?" he enquired of the friend who was helping me set the interview up. The friend confirmed that I had worked at Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners for just under three and a half years. Carter-Ruck was worried that I might for some reason harbour a grudge, and that interviewing him would be a way of settling a score or two.

This was far from true, but Carter-Ruck made his name not merely by virtue of his notorious tenacity and aggressive tactics, but by thinking of everything, however obscure. Eventually, he agreed to speak to me, but only if I wrote the profile first and sent it to him. "I will then, of course, let you have a few quotes," he wrote. I replied that I could not let him have copy approval, and sent him various questions. He repeated his request to see a draft of the profile, and said: "It seems to me that this could be helpful to you and to me." This classic piece of Carter-Ruck speak meant that if I got anything wrong, I would rue the consequences.

Carter-Ruck cut a formidable figure when I was a trainee at his firm. He occupied a lavish office commensurate with both his senior partner status and his client list, which included Lord Beaverbrook, Cecil Parkinson, James Goldsmith, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Lord Rothermere, Stewart Granger, the King of Malaysia and various members of the Churchill family. He spoke with a husky voice, had cold grey eyes and seemed taller than he was thanks to a trim build and an aura of unyielding tirelessness. His energy was boundless and he would regularly run up the five flights of stairs at the firm's Holborn offices while younger colleagues took the lift. He was a man who exuded capability.

I was intimidated by Carter-Ruck from day one, when I was shown into to his office to meet him, accompanied by my fellow trainee. Carter-Ruck's eyes twinkled as they alighted on my colleague, who was far prettier than me. I never worked directly for him, but the occasional memo would wend its way from his lair to my desk, asking me to conduct some research or ferry documents to court. I dreaded those memos, written in their legalese devoid of emotion, but Nigel Tait, a protégé of Carter-Ruck's and partner at the firm that the 89-year old left amid some acrimony in 1998, always found him "very approachable. He was very easy-going and even though he was a household name he would talk to anyone."

But Carter-Ruck and I never quite hit it off. At firm jamborees, he always managed to introduce me to clients as "Mr Ward." I was too scared ever to correct him. Though he was clearly capable of great charm, his presence aroused only fear in me, and I was far from alone. A media lawyer whom I spoke to said that his letters literally "made editors cry," and another, when I asked if he would comment on Carter-Ruck for my profile, wrote: "He is a c***."

I spoke to Carter-Ruck three or four times when putting together the piece. Despite his initial reluctance he was courteous and helpful. He told me proudly of how he had built a stone croft in the Scottish Highlands from scratch, of his enthusiasm for ocean cruising, of his memorable cases and his work for the Stop Stansted Expansion Campaign, for which he acted as chairman of the legal committee. His most cherished result was obtaining a posthumous apology for Winston Churchill, despite the basic tenet of libel law that the dead cannot be libelled. I was curious about his libel reading of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, a book which Carter-Ruck describes in his memoirs as "a beautifully written account, poignant and tragic," and wondered if literary history might be illumined by his recollections of Nabokov. But it turned out that Carter-Ruck had not met Nabokov, who "wouldn't accept a single alteration to his text."

My own humble text had been written, and I wondered whether to send it to Carter-Ruck. How many sentences would he try and change? And yet what if a stray libel had crept into the copy? Carter-Ruck was the master of finding what are known as innuendo meanings, defamatory imputations invisible to the naked eye, and could I risk one of those despair-inducing letters?

The same old fear came back, and I sent the profile to him, asking that he read it for factual accuracy only. Carter-Ruck had just a couple of quibbles, one of which was my description of his voice as "husky." I felt a little compromised, but libel free – and perhaps this as much as anything is Carter-Ruck's legacy. Those who write for a living know all too well the dread of an action for libel, and copy is changed on a daily basis to avoid or minimise legal risk. There are those who say this is a good thing, and those who think – in a world of instantaneous communication via mobiles and internet chat-rooms, where the identity of a miscreant celebrity or politician will be known the world over in seconds – that we should all grow thicker skins.

Ironically, Carter-Ruck started life as a defendant libel lawyer, and regretted the way he became perceived as a claimant lawyer. This he told me one night in mid-November, ringing well past midnight and launching into an anxious, breathless speech without pausing to ask where I was or what I was doing. I tried to interrupt but it was no good. It was obvious that he was not well, that he had suddenly slipped into being a shadow of his former self. I had a feeling that my profile of Carter-Ruck's return to the fray with M Law wouldn't run.

I learnt recently that he talked often about the profile in the weeks before he died. He had told me he was "excited" about it but as his health deteriorated the possibility of the piece appearing grew ever more unlikely. Even the week before he died, I was contacted to ask when the piece would be appearing. A fighter to the end, Carter-Ruck was clinging on, and somewhere in his once razor-sharp mind was the thought that, once again, he would be the centrepiece of an article in a national newspaper. It struck me that for all that he elicited fear, for all that he may have been ruthless and cunning, for all that his bills were huge and his critics were legion, for all that he was a complex, driven man with good sides and bad, Peter Carter-Ruck was, at the end of the day, only human.