PRESS

The troubled Eye

Libel costs threaten a satirical magazine

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 19 1989
PRESS

The troubled Eye

Libel costs threaten a satirical magazine

ANDREW PHILLIPS June 19 1989

The troubled Eye

PRESS

Libel costs threaten a satirical magazine

Private Eye, Britain’s famed satirical magazine, normally fills its pages with barbed humor and witty exposés of the country’s Establishment. But much of last week’s issue was no joke. In it, the magazine appealed to its readers for money to keep it alive in the face of a

staggering libel award of $1.1 million—the largest such award in British history. To collect the donations,

Private Eye set up what it called the “Bananaballs Fund,” named after a remark by its editor just moments after the award was announced by a High Court jury in London late last month. “If this is justice,” exclaimed a shocked Ian Hislop, “then I am a banana.”

The award was won by Sonia Sutcliffe, the 38-year-old estranged wife of Peter Sutcliffe, the notorious “Yorkshire Ripper,” who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1981 for murdering 13 women. In January of that year, and again in 1983, Private Eye claimed that Sonia Sutcliffe had agreed to sell her story to a British tabloid for $290,000. In 1987, Sutcliffe sued—and on May 24 the jury ruled in her favor. Private Eye immediately said that it would appeal the decision. But the enormous award prompted widespread concern that the magazine might be forced into bankruptcy after 28 years of provocative reporting.

For the Eye, as it is commonly known, the Sutcliffe case was just one of many skirmishes with the law since it was founded by four onetime school friends in 1961. It became the most talked-about new publication in Britain since the Second World War, largely by flouting the mainstream British press’s tradition of keeping quiet about the personal failings of Establishment figures. Indeed, journalists on mainstream papers often funnelled choice bits of gossip to the Eye, turning it into a forum for exclusive reporting as well as biting satire. Still, the magazine seldom checks what it reports and has been embroiled in dozens of expensive lawsuits. Fighting those cases has cost Private Eye a lot of money. It sells 210,000 copies every two weeks, but made a profit of just $5,655 in 1988. Managing director David Cash said that that was largely the result of paying about

$942,450 last year in legal fees, libel awards and out-of-court settlements. “We are basically quite profitable,” said Cash. “It’s the libel costs that bring it right down to the edge.” The award to Sutcliffe was the latest in a series of huge judgments against British publi-

cations. Last year, Koo Stark, an actress and onetime girlfriend of Prince Andrew, was awarded $565,470 from a tabloid, The People, which claimed that she continued dating Andrew after her marriage in 1984. Other papers agreed to ever-larger out-ofcourt settlements. Last December, The Sun paid singer Elton John an unprecedented $1.9 million to settle 17 libel actions he had brought against the paper concerning

reports about his alleged cruelty to dogs.

Such sums are still far below those awarded in the United States. The record U.S. award that the Supreme Court has upheld on appeal is $3 million in 1988 to Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. against the CBS television network and an anchor, Walter Jacobson, at its Chicago station for Jacobson’s comments about one of the company’s cigarette brands.

The largest-ever libel award in Canada is $135,000, won in 1975 by former Montreal city councillor Gerald Snyder against The Gazette after the paper gave the impression that he had links with organized crime. The Gazette fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada and, in 1988, Snyder collected his award and interest totalling nearly $310,000. Still, specialists in media law say that libel costs in Canada show little sign of escalating like those in other countries.

In Britain, the latest judgment against Private Eye led to calls for reform of the country’s libel laws, especially because cases decided by juries make awards for damage without any advice from a presiding judge. The magazine’s editors drew attention to the wide gulf between the amount it has been ordered to pay and the relatively small sums of money awarded by compensation boards to women who survived attacks by the Yorkshire Ripper. Said Hislop: “The libel system has gone completely crazy. Juries are just picking figures out of their heads.” After several members of Parliament voiced concern, the Conservative government announced that the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, would review the level of damages in libel cases and consider whether juries should decide the amounts without advice from a judge.

Others argued that Private Eye has been caught up in a wave of public reaction against Britain’s often-outrageous tabloid press. Such papers as The Sun and the News of the World have increased their circulation by featuring seminude “page three girls,” prying relentlessly into private lives and paying thousands of dollars for interviews. Many media observers maintain that the large awards being made by libel juries reflect a growing distaste for such methods. Ironically, Private Eye argued during its trial that its articles were aimed at the practice of paying for stories rather than at Sutcliffe herself. “It was really an attack on chequebook journalism,” said managing director Cash. “It is nonsense for us to pay for the sins of the tabloid press.” Still, unless its legal appeal is successful, or its “Bananaballs” fund raises the needed money, the Eye may have suffered a knockout punch.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in London