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McLibel Support Campaign
P R E S S . R E L E A S E . 03/07/02
Bookshop Libel latest ...
£14 Derisory Damages in First of Bookshop Libel Cases
Moral Victory - Legal Impasse - Financial Predicament
A High Court verdict on Tuesday 2 July could be a short-term deterrent to right-wingers using libel writs to attack small radical bookshops; but it still leaves two of London's last such shops with potentially crippling legal bills, and it exposes a major gap in defamation law which needs plugging.
The two-day High Court case was the culmination of an action brought nearly 2 years ago against Housmans Bookshop* in Kings Cross, London, by someone currently using the name Alexander Baron. The right-wing anti-gay litigant had been referred to as a plagiarist in one sentence in a 136-page pamphlet stocked in the shop. He had chosen to sue only the shop, not the author or publisher concerned, because of his distaste for the sort of material made available in radical bookshops.
[* McLibel Support Campaign note: Housman's Bookshop is the non-commercial London bookshop which we share an address with, and which gave us so much support during the McLibel case.]
Although he had at one stage demanded that the shop pay him £50,000 to drop the case, the jury awarded him just £14. Because he had already rejected a settlement offer higher than that, he was also ordered to pay most of the shop's legal costs; however, there is no expectation that he has the resources to do so.
Despite the jury's apparent sympathy with the defendants, they clearly felt virtually compelled by the judge's legal rulings to find against the shop. Following this test case - the first occasion on which a bookshop has tried to use the "innocent dissemination" defence introduced in the 1996 Defamation Act - it seems that if anyone suggests to a shop or library that an item on their shelves is defamatory, and they fail to remove it immediately, then they cannot use this defence in any proceedings later brought against them, irrespective of whether it was reasonable to take the suggestion seriously.
This action against Housmans was one of a series, dating back to 1996, brought against Housmans, Bookmarks (also in London) and others by people criticised in anti-fascist magazines. This was the first to end up in court, but one of the earlier cases - against Bookmarks and Housmans, and involving the magazine Searchlight - is still extant. It is due in court this autumn unless a settlement is reached first - either course is legally costly.
The Bookshop Libel Fund is calling for urgent financial support for the shops to cover their costs in these cases, and for a change in the law to stop bookshops being targeted in this way.
See the appended earlier release for the background to these cases.
BOOKSHOP LIBEL FUND c/o Housmans Bookshop, 5 Caledonian Road, London N1 9DX (tel 020-7278 4474); c/o Bookmarks Bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE (tel 020-7637 1848).
PRESS RELEASE · for immediate release · June 2002
Bookshops fight libel threat - defence campaign relaunched
Six years down the line, two small independent bookshops are still facing a potentially ruinous libel case for stocking the respected anti-fascist magazine Searchlight. The case was brought by someone criticised in Searchlight.
The shops involved in this continuing case are Housmans, at Kings Cross in London, linked to the 65-year-old pacifist paper Peace News; and Bookmarks, also in London, a socialist bookshop established for 30 years and the appointed bookseller for the TUC.
"Astoundingly, British law allows anyone who claims they have been libelled to sue a shop, distributor or library handling the allegedly libellous publication, as well as or instead of suing the author, editor and publisher," said Albert Beale of Housmans.
This case has still not reached a conclusion although it relates to an article in a 1993 issue of Searchlight and the case was first brought in 1996. This action is one of several initiated then by people criticised in Searchlight, in what could be seen as politically motivated attacks on progressive bookshops.
Housmans and Bookmarks have been fighting the case with a defence of "innocent dissemination", in effect arguing that it is impossible for bookshops, particularly small independents, to check - and take responsibility for - the content of the thousands of publications in stock at any one time. The shops feel that it is important to try to take a stand, otherwise there might be no end to this sort of "legal intimidation".
The shops are facing a new round of legal bills as the case moves towards a conclusion, and so are relaunching the appeal fund for this important case.
One of the shops - Housmans - has recently been targeted with a further libel writ from one of the group who sued over Searchlight. This case, relating to criticism in another publication, similarly threatens the free circulation of radical material.
"At a time when Le Pen has come second in the French presidential elections, and the BNP has won three council seats in Britain, it is more important than ever that independent bookshops are free to stock anti-fascist and anti-racist literature without fear of legal proceedings," said Judith Orr, Bookmarks manager.
For further details, contact Judith Orr from Bookmarks, 020-7637 1848 or email@example.com; or contact Albert Beale from Housmans, 020-7278 4474.
Donations can be made to "Bookshop Libel Fund", c/o Bookmarks or Housmans, addresses above.
The long-running case involving the two bookshops is the last remaining of several libel actions which all date from the same era; the cases were all initiated by a related group of people who had been criticised in Searchlight.
The case is finally set down to come to court later this year, unless a settlement is reached first. Either course will run up significant legal costs.
The vagaries of British libel law give an opportunity for politically-motivated litigants to seriously threaten the existence of progressive bookshops, as a by-product of the litigants' (well-founded or otherwise) complaints against publications which have criticised them.
The Bookshop Libel Fund was originally set up in 1996 to support small shops caught up in cases like this one - the related cases at that time included action against other bookshops too. The fund has had enough left, after the initial appeal, to cover the trickle of continuing legal costs in this unresolved case - until now.
Even if any award of damages against a minor defendant like a bookshop was minimal - or indeed even if the libel accusation was thrown out altogether - the legal costs could still be sufficient to bankrupt a struggling, non-commercial bookshop. (There is no expectation that a person bringing such a case would be able to pay the defendants' costs if their action failed; anyone launching such an action doesn't have to first show that they could pay the defence costs if they lost.)
With the current cases expected to come to a head very soon, support is urgently needed now to replenish the Bookshop Libel Fund and ensure that small progressive bookshops can survive assaults like this.
Founding sponsors of the Bookshop Libel Fund appeal included:
John Monks, General Secretary TUC
Other supporters included the Booksellers Association as well as
many local branches of Unison, Aslef, GMB, MSF, NUJ, NUT, and the
T&G, regional TUCs, local Labour Parties, peace groups and
bookshops, plus hundreds of other individuals.