A Brief History of Libel, Part 1 — John Major

“Our system is not one of justice, but of law” — Edna Buchanan

A Brief History of Libel, Part 1 — John Major
In 1993 the then Prime Minister, John Major, set his libel-sights on two publications in relation to claims that he was having an affair with a freelance cook among his staff, Clare Latimer.  Major was the first British Prime Minister to sue for libel since Harold Wilson sued the International Herald Tribune for damages in 1968, coincidentally for allegations about his own sexual improprieties.

The publications in Major’s 1993 libel action cross-hairs were the left-leaning New Statesman and Society magazine and a much lower circulation satirical organ with a penchant for saying the un-sayable when it came to undermining the ruling class and the establishment generally, Scallywag Magazine.

The case arose when it came to Major’s attention that an article in The New Statesman and Society pulled together various subtle mentions of an alleged affair that had been circulating in the press and media for two years.  Meanwhile, Scallywag had, in a way that only smaller and more dedicated organisations and researchers ever seem to manage for the greater good, been further stoking the flames with regard Major’s alleged affair with Latimer.

Following the publication of the New Statesman article, Major sued both magazines for libel and extended the desperate clutches of his libel actions to the printers and distributors of both magazines.  Major’s libel action nearly forced both magazines out of business, but not quite; both magazines continued on, somewhat weakened.  Today, The New Statesman and its contributors are mostly alive and well, but the same cannot be said for Scallywag Magazine and its founder, Simon Regan.  Although, thanks to the Internet, some of Scallywag Magazine’s slings and arrows directed towards the ruling class still exist in the public domain for anyone that feels the need to understand quite what it was about the magazine that so upset the establishment and, in particular, senior Conservative members of the British establishment.

By 16th July 1993, Major indicated his intention to drop the libel charge following Clare Latimer’s decision to abandon her own libel claims against the magazines. Both Latimer and Major received individual payouts of £30,000 from Scallywag, a total amount that Scallywag’s lawyers stated had ‘crippled’ the magazine.  New Statesman and Society were treated more leniently, paying only £1,001 each to both claimants.  The New Statesman and Society’s printers, BPCC, and their distributors, John Menzies and WH Smiths, also had monies extorted from them in out-of-court settlements.  The total amount of costs born by The New Statesman and Society finished up at around £250,000.

All parties in the John Major libel affair settled out of court, meaning that the case was never tested in the courts and that monies were summarily extorted without any judicial scrutiny of the truth, or otherwise, of the allegations in question, or any other allegations that may have been in circulation.  For some reason, Major stopped short of also suing postwomen and men, and the newspaper boys and girls,  who could also have been potentially guilty of libel and defamation by virtue of having delivered the magazines, about the content of which they would have known nothing, to subscribers.

As it turned out, the stories of Major’s alleged affair with Latimer were a deviously conceived cover story for another affair that Major was having at the time, a four-year long affair with Edwina Currie.  Following the publication of Edwina Currie’s diaries in 2002 and her admission that Major had been “the love of her life“,  Major — perhaps best known for his laughable-under-the-circumstances “Back to Basics” morality campaign — issued a statement declaring his shame over the affair, saying: “It is the one event in my life of which I am most ashamed and I have long feared would be made public.”

Law should not be a tool for the powerful to silence the weak” — Padraig Reidy

In the particular and specific case of John Major, the libel actions he brought against the New Statesman and Society and Scallywag magazines were nothing to do with any sort of justice, or ensuring that the truth of the matter was known, but instead a high-powered effort, the likes of which is only available to the wealthy and privileged, to utilise Draconian libel legislation in the dogged pursuit of the suppression of the publication of information and allegations about which he, by his own admission, was deeply “ashamed” and “long feared would be made public”.

The alleged affair in question, featuring the wrongly accused Clare Latimer, was by no means the only affair of Major’s about which allegations existed. Indeed, legal documents that later came to light showed Major’s personal commitment to his lawyers that he had never had an adulterous relationship, crucially, “during his political career“, thereby refining the scope of his sexual fidelity considerably and removing from consideration any other adulterous affairs that Major might have had not “during his [very short] political career”.

Had the case gone to court, Major’s only option would have been to perjure himself by lying under oath to stand by his assurances to lawyers bringing the case on his behalf.  Furthermore, an August 17, 1993 letter from Major’s Biddle & Co lawyers made demands of the magazines that they would not publish any statements suggesting Major “has had adulterous relationships with a number of women, including Clare Latimer”.

As a result of John Major’s libel actions, one subtly-seeded mistaken identification was the incident that conveniently provided the cover for “a number of” potentially legitimate identifications regarding improprietous sexual activities that Major sought to cover-up and keep hidden from public sight.

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