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March 1997

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[PR WEEK - 6 MARCH 1997]


Even by its own topsy-turvy standards, the world of libel can still spring a few surprises on publishers. Being sued by Saddam Hussein, for example, as the Nouvel Observateur has been this week after daring to suggest that the dictator is a few rounds short of a full clip.

Another relative rarity is to be sued by a Royal relative - as the Express on Sunday found to its cost when Diana, Princess of Wales, relieved it of £75,000 in an out-of-court settlement after bogus claims about the much publicised sale of her old frocks.

Almost as unusual is to be sued by another part of the media - the scions of which normally, although by no means always, take these things in their stride.

For publishers, this area of law is well signposted as an occupational hazard. Occasionally, however, intermediaries have also been caught in the crossfire. Some of the most surprised defendants have been those in the news distribution trade who have occasionally found themselves on the wrong end of a writ - as WH Smith and John Menzies once were when Prime Minister John Major took on Scallywag and the New Statesman.

Now Two-Ten Communications has found itself in the unusual position of being sued by ITN over a press release it distributed on behalf of Living Marxism.

The defamation law changed last September to allow both printers and distributors a defence in libel actions, provided they can show they took reasonable care in relation to the publication, and that they did not know, and had no reason to believe that the material was defamatory. Nevertheless, this is by no means a watertight get-out clause and each case will depend on the facts. Unsurprisingly, Two-Ten says it is currently reviewing its procedures for checking client copy.

Two-Ten's plight is also a salutary reminder to all PR people that, despite the fact that they are not publishers by trade, much of their activity involves publishing - press releases and statements, brochures, advertorials, memos and letters.

It makes no difference whether the words are your own, your client's or someone else's, nor does it have to be on the front page of a tabloid to merit a libel action. Mathew Freud Associates, as the company was then known, was once successfully sued for £10,000 over a Christmas Card.

Perhaps it would be time well spent this week checking your own systems for keeping the libel lawyers off your backs. Just in case you've written something unkind about a dictator in a press release recently.

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