Thursday 23 August 2012

Libel to frustrate .... the other Deighton Dossier and the High Court

Cab, anyone?
A writer of fiction is free to make observations about the characters and places he or she chooses to put in a book without fee of being libelled. When writing turns to real people and places, then there's a risk, especially in the UK courts which are notoriously open to the liberal use of the libel law by the rich and powerful who feel they've been defamed.

A blog reader, Patrick Kearney, recently got in touch to ask a question in relation to Len Deighton's last - I think - and only involvement in the law courts for libel, in a roundabout way and in the process shed some more light on an aspect of one of my favourite of Len's books - his London Dossier, after which this site's name is an homage. With a little detective work and an email to Len's friend Edward Milward-Oliver, here is a little of the background information.

Patrick explained that as part of an attempt to catalogue a collection of books, pamphlets,periodicals and other printed matter that is held by the British Library and withheld by them from access by their readers. This collection is referred to as the 'suppressed safe' -- abbreviated to 'SS' for convenience -- and the books that find their way into it do so usually at the request of their authors and/or publishers,
sometimes the courts, and, rarely, the Government. The titles and pressmarks of suppressed works are not included in the Library's catalogues.

One of these was, he told me Len Deighton's London Dossier from 1967. The British Library possesses copies of the original 1967 editions published simultaneously by Jonathan Cape and Penguin books  (hardback and paperback respectively) which, for some reason, had been given the same pressmark: SS.Cup.13.b.11.

He wanted to know: why should this books be withheld from the public?

I had read somewhere that there were issues associated with this book, partly due to the fact that while it is in Len's name - and he contributes chapters - there are many more individual contributors, mostly Len's friends and acquaintances, who contribute their thoughts on London boozing, eating, driving, walking, sport and the stories behind some of its more colourful characters.

But, I wasn't sure, so I got in touch with Edward who confirmed that Rowton Hotels had sued Cape and others for libel and won. Rowton Hotels? Not a familiar name but, as I later discovered after some further detective work by a friend of Patrick's, the owner and operator of a number of hotels in London in the sixties. It seems they had taken offence to a description - erroneous, it turns out - of one of their hotels in the chapter.

In the chapter 'All through the night' written by Len - his contributors provided alternate chapters - he had provided tips on where to stay if in London late of a night, and mentioned in particular two 'hostels' - Parkview House and the Mount Pleasant Hotel - with the suggestion according to the courts, that his descriptions associated the hotels with doss houses for vagrants when they were in fact just quality cheap acommodation.

To be honest, from reading my first edition of the book - signed, ironically, by Len - it all seems pretty innocuous. The issue seems to be perhaps that, by describing these hotels in between chapters discussing vagrants, cheap hotels and 'poor districts', the impression was given that these hotels were somehow just up-market doss houses. In UK libel law, it seems, the merest "suggestion" of doss houses and cheap prices is enough to build a case for libel.

The cuttings shown in this blog post give the details about the court case and the alleged damage done to the chairman of Rowton Hotels, a Mr William Barclay Harris QC. The judgement does say that the publishers agreed to make changes in future editions.

A year later, in 1968, Len and The Sunday Times would be sued for libel by former soldier David Stirling over an article Len wrote in the Sunday Times Magazine about Operation Snowdrop - an SAS attack on Benghazi during World War II.

Books can be an expensive business, given the rate libel lawyers charge!

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