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Sunday March 25, 2001

Sikorski and book pulping

Richard Ingrams
The Observer

EITHER you sue, or you shut up. Many years ago Roy Hattersley MP, as he then was, announced that he was going to take legal action over an item in Private Eye. (So long ago was it, that I cannot now recall what the offending paragraph was about.)

Despite the huffing and puffing, however, nothing happened. But ever afterwards when Hattersley's name was mentioned in the Eye it was followed by the taunt: 'Where is your writ?' I was reminded of this ancient story by the behaviour last week of the Trade Secretary Stephen Byers following publication of Tom Bower's book, The Paymaster. Byers let it be known that he was considering legal action against the book and also the Daily Mail, which had serialised it. Solicitors' letters were sent out, threatening this, that and the other. But to date no writ has been issued.

Meanwhile, Mr Byers has taken to threatening booksellers, some of whom, including the courageous firm of WH Smith, have withdrawn all copies of Bower's book until further notice. This is a useful ploy which has been used in the past by the likes, for example, of right-wing historian David Irving (see last week's Observer ) who in addition to his recent threats actually succeeded in getting a book pulped which examined his role in the Sikorski affair.[*]

More recently, when Tom Bower published a book about Robert Maxwell, the Fat Man instructed his chief of staff Peter Jay to send out a letter threatening all booksellers with a libel writ unless they withdrew the book from sale. Funnily enough the charge against Byers in The Paymaster is that he suppressed a report about Maxwell's payment of £200,000 to his colleague Geoffrey Robinson. The net result of all this toing-and-froing will be merely to increase the general contempt in which the likes of Byers are held and hopefully to increase the sale of Bower's book. In the meantime, when Byer's name crops up I shall repeat the mantra, 'Where is your writ?'

Related items on this website

The Observer's reluctance to publish letters of correction
The Observer's death wish
David Irving's forthcoming libel action against The Observer and Gitta Sereny
 British release Ministry of Defence file on the General Sikorski controversy | Mr Irving's summary:
"I had to shorten the front-line, and called off the libel suit against Thompson, so that battle was never fought. The real war was raging, as is apparent from the documents now released, behind the scenes."
 "Churchill's War", vol. ii: "Triumph in Adversity": Appendix on Sikorski case

David Irving writes:

CARLOS Thompson, an actor with a brain problem (clinical), was hired in 1968 by the Churchill family to do a hatchet job on me after William Kimber Ltd published my book Accident, the Death of General Sikorski. (Proof: Young Winston Churchill Jr describes how they engaged Thompson in his otherwise excellent book on his father Randolph.)

Thompson's book was called The Assassination of Winston Churchill. I saw an advance copy, and it was deliberately libellous, a well known trick of wealthy antagonists. They try to force the impecunious into a ruinous legal battle. My lawyer Michael Rubinstein and counsel so advised me. The libels were however of a clearly demonstrable nature. E.g., Thompson's book says: "Mr Irving taped his interview with Anthony Quayle, without Quayle being aware that there was a hidden tape recorder." (Quayle had been ADC to the Governor of Gibraltar in 1943). But the opening lines on the tape record (which I still have) are as follows: "Mr Quayle, I have here between us a tape recorder, as I prefer to record such interviews. Do you have any objection to my recording this interview?" "Not at all, Mr Irving." And so on. I produced a 60pp list of the deliberate libels.

After the book went on sale I issued a writ. The publishers (who were not part of the plot), evidently on legal advice, stopped selling the Thompson book pending the action (there are serious financial penalties in aggravated damages if you flout such a writ by continuing to peddle the work, which is not impossible: e.g. Lipstadt continued to sell her libellous book throughout the recent action and even now, pending the appeal).

Unfortunately, we were just entering on the appeal process in the PQ.17 libel action at that time (Captain Jack Broome had sued Cassell Ltd and myself for libel) which soaked up my little family's entire financial reserves, and I had to abandon the Thompson action before it went the full length, but for that reason only.

I can understand Richard Ingrams' dislike of the laws of libel, as he is a journalist accustomed to smearing people; for his targets, the law of defamation, and journalists' fear of it, is our one protection.

I will not say more, as Thompson is now dead and cannot protect himself or answer.

©Focal Point 2001  e-mail:  write to David Irving