The man who invented the London libel industry
The scourge of Private Eye is back in spirit - and the Guardian is the target
The London law firm famous for helping clients as diverse as Sir James Goldsmith, Sir Elton John and Kevin Keegan deal with "intrusive and hostile" media inquiries down the years is back in the news - and this time it appears to have surpassed itself.
The firm is Carter-Ruck, whose founder was Peter Carter-Ruck, credited with inventing Britain's modern libel industry. For nearly 50 years he was the scourge of Private Eye and, at one time or another, virtually every newspaper in Fleet Street.
As a former colleague memorably put it after Carter-Ruck's death in 2003, "He did for freedom of speech what the Boston Strangler did for door-to-door salesmen."
But Carter-Ruck's spirit lives on and on Monday the firm that still bears his name managed to persuade a High Court judge to issue a gagging order of unprecedented power.
The order appears to overturn privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights. It also goes against a ruling by Lord Denning 30 years ago that "whatever comments are made in Parliament" can be reported without fear of contempt.
The target of the gagging order is the Guardian newspaper. What the paper has been prevented from reporting are the details of a written question posed by an MP in the House of Commons, and due to be answered by a minister later this week.
What makes the gagging order so bizarre in the view of political and media watchers commenting overnight, is that the MP's question is contained in the Commons order papers published yesterday, available as a matter of public record, and is also available on the Parliament website.
But as the Guardian itself reported last night:
"The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.
"The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented for the first time in memory from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.
"The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations."
When Peter Carter-Ruck (above) died just before Christmas 2003, one of his former colleagues, the libel lawyer David Hooper, wrote in the Guardian about the "chilling effect" Carter-Ruck had had on the media.
Hooper, who also came up with the memorable 'Boston Strangler' line, went on: "Until Carter-Ruck got his teeth into the libel law, actions were infrequent and inexpensive. But from the 1950s, Carter-Ruck became the leading libel lawyer and clients sought him out.
"He honed his menacing letters to encourage socialites to sue for imagined slights and fashion a weapon for politicians to suppress hostile stories. He preferred the bludgeon of the writ to the rather more effective call to an editor preferred by Lord Goodman.
"He established the idea that libel law was complicated and merited very high fees. In the process he became very rich. 'I like to bill the clients as the tears are flowing,' he told me."
Today, the two most senior partners at Carter-Ruck - in terms of longevity - are Andrew Stephenson and Alasdair Pepper.
Stephenson's write-up on the Carter-Ruck website says he "has considerable experience in advising individuals and corporations in handling intrusive or hostile media interest, and advising on reputational issues arising from governmental inquiries and investigations."
Pepper's biog boasts of a client list that includes "multinational and national companies, chairmen and managing directors from a range of industry sectors" and "some of the wealthiest businessmen in Britain".
Editor's note: since this article was posted, Carter-Ruck abandoned their action against the Guardian at 12.45pm today. The injunction had been on behalf of the multinational oil trader Trafigura, and the newspaper was bidding to have it removed at a 2pm hearing. ·
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