A side-note to Julian Assange’s rather bizarre defence of his phone-call to Ian Hislop detailed in the edition of Private Eye out this week (£1.50 in all good newsagents right now!).
Rather than correct a smear, Mr. Hislop has attempted, perhaps not surprisingly, to justify one smear with another in the same direction. That he has a reputation for this, and is famed to have received more libel suits in the UK than any other journalist as a result, does not mean that it is right.
The Wikileaks leader’s valiant attempt to ally himself with such victims of calumny as James Goldsmith, Robert Maxwell, Sonia Sutcliffe and John Condliffe involves a big dose of balls. In the three years I have spent working on the history of Private Eye I’ve never found anything to substantiate the “Ian Hislop is the most sued man in Britain” claim that’s been floating around the web and press cuttings for a good while now. I asked him about it in one of our interviews:
AM: There’s this fact floating around about you that you’re ‘the most sued man in history’…
IH: Says who?
AM: Says Wikipedia, I think.
IH: Yeah, yeah. Must be true!
AM: In terms of libel cases, would you say the Eye is below or above average?
IH: In terms of everyone else, or generally? Well, you know, libel collapsed completely. Members of the libel bar had to retrain! The great old days went. It was partly our fault, for whingeing about the need to change the law and then it got changed. Sutcliffe was the turnaround, it meant the court of appeal could cap libel damages, the judge was allowed to direct the jury as to amount, everything that had been mad about it started to be changed… It created a real sea change: there was a feeling that if you went to court you might lose. For most of the 80s, you just won, or you settled. So the actual number of libel actions went way down for us. And partly I feel because the journalism was more robust, and stouter. And we did a lot more telling people to fuck off at an early stage, and a lot more winning outside the court. I think at the moment we’re all worried about injunctions and privacy, the whole new game seems to be occupying vast amounts of time and money. And libel has become, touch wood, less of an issue.
Sheila Molnar, the Eye’s managing director, told me rather mournfully in January that she “can’t remember when we last had a writ.”
Still, it looks like that champion of the free flow of information Mr Assange is quite keen on bucking the general trend, judging by this tweet a month ago.
That wasn’t true, either. Wikileaks have taken no legal action whatsoever over the book.