Throughout its often troubled 28-year history, the British satirical journal Private Eye has mercilessly lampooned public figures and accused them of obnoxious and even criminal behavior in articles that most mainstream newspapers and magazines would never consider publishing. As a result, Private Eye’s editors traditionally treated libel actions largely as a matter of routine. But they expressed shock last May when a British court ordered the magazine to pay $1.1 million in libel damages. It was the largest award in British history, and it raised the possibility that the fortnightly publication might be forced into bankruptcy. Then, Private Eye owners appealed the award—and last week, a threejudge panel cancelled all but $49,000 of the award and announced that they would reassess the amount of damages at a later date.
The Appeals Court, however, dismissed the magazine’s contention that it had not libelled Sonia Sutcliffe, the estranged wife of the socalled Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe, 42, was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for murdering 13 women. That year, and again in 1983, Private Eye claimed that Sonia Sutcliffe agreed to sell her story to the British tabloid newspaper Daily Mail for $290,000. Sutcliffe sued in 1987, and a High Court jury in London ruled in her favor. Lawyers for the Eye, as it is commonly known, argued during the trial that the articles were aimed at the tabloid press’s practice of chequebook journalism—paying for interviews.
After the initial judgment, the Eye’s editors pointed to the wide gulf between the amount it had been ordered to pay and the average payments of $13,500 compensation boards awarded to the families of Sutcliffe’s victims. In Britain, juries in libel cases make awards for damages without any advice from the presiding judge. But the judgment against Private Eye led to calls for reform of the nation’s libel laws. As a result, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government announced in June that it would review libel legislation. After the jury’s decision in May, editor Ian Hislop declared, “If this is justice, then I am a banana.” Last week, he announced with evident delight: “The judges have said the award is too much. I am not a banana.”
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