Thursday, October 01, 2009

Libel article brought a smile to my face

About 20 years ago I had the privilege and pleasure to work for one of the great journalists' editors of the time, Mike Lowe.

Mike is a natural journalist and I've probably never worked with anyone as gifted at pulling together all the elements of a complex issue and then laying them out on a page in such a way as to give them impact and clarity. Above all, he had a wicked sense of humour which shone through his newspapers.

Sadly, he eventually fell out of favour with our employers and left the business.

But I read a fairly bland article today about a newspaper paying out damages to a politician and it reminded of one of Mike's very funny - if somewhat outrageous - responses to a similar situation.

The article on HoldtheFrontPage, a website aimed at regional journalists, included the following paragraph:

In its apology, the Observer wrote: "We accept that the allegations contained in the article were untrue and misleading and we apologise to Coun Jones for the distress and embarrassment our publication caused him. We have agreed to pay Cllr Jones a substantial sum in libel damages."

Of course, we have no idea what the term 'substantial sum' means. Is it £500? £5,000? £50,000? Or even £500,000? Almost certainly, the terms of the agreement include a gagging clause, forbidding either side from revealing the actual amount paid.

Mike always thought this sort of gag was totally unreasonable as the term 'substantial damages' can leave the impression that a big sum has been paid over when, in reality, the sum is often very small, much closer to £500 than £50,000. I don't want to give the impression that regional newspapers often libel people and pay out damages - it's actually pretty rare (the Mercury, for example, has not paid out anything in the eight months that I've been in Leicester).

But, back to Mike. We had published something inaccurate about a local councillor who demanded an apology and damages and a deal was agreed which included such a ban on revealing the amount paid out, but describing it as 'substantial.'

At the time, we published an item every day called 'word of the day.' This would take a word from an article in the paper and explain what it meant. It was usually Mike's way of explaining gobbledegook and was an interesting little feature.

On the day that we published the apology and the line about substantial damages, the word of the day was 'substantial' and it was defined simply as: £500!

As the councillor's solicitors later complained, it wasn't cricket. But it was funny.