MP’s libel case against publisher settles

A claim by the Labour Chief Whip, Nick Brown MP, against writer Tom Bower and publisher Faber and Faber over a reference to Mr Brown in a book about Tony Blair has been resolved with the issue of a joint press statement.

Mr Brown brought libel proceedings over an allegation relating to him in Mr Bower’s book about Mr Blair’s decade as Prime Minister, Broken Vows.

The book suggested that in 1998 the News of the World had accused Mr Brown of having paid rent boys for consensual rough sex, saying that he had been ‘accused by a national newspaper of paying £100 to rent boys in order to be kicked around a room, and admitted his sexuality.’

The litigation had previously been the subject of a hearing to determine what the words complained of meant and whether they were defamatory at common law, i.e. whether they lowered the claimant in the estimation of ‘right-thinking people generally’.

Faber ultimately accepted that it could be defamatory to say Mr Brown had paid for sex; visited or used prostitutes, enjoyed violent or rough sex and asked to be subjected to violent or rough sex – but only in the context of his being a Minister of the Crown.

Although the Judge declined to rule on the issue because of these concessions, he made clear that he did not necessarily accept that the allegation was defamatory of Mr Brown only because he was a Minister because ‘Equality before the law seems… to demand that the standard is the same for all citizens’.

The Judge observed that the resolution of the issue ‘would raise difficult questions as to contemporary social values’.

The parties publicised the settlement of their dispute by means of a joint statement which explained that Mr Bower included the reference only to explain how Mr Brown came publicly to admit he was gay, and that he defended his original report on public interest grounds,

The statement went on to say that Mr Brown said the book did not make clear that the News of the World did not in fact publish the “rent boy” allegations, which were untrue, and that the book did not record his denials.

The statement said that, following the resolution of the litigation, Mr Brown accepted that the offending passage was published in good faith as part of a chronological political narrative and that the defendants did not seek to adopt the allegations, which they accepted were untrue.

For their part, the defendants said that they regretted any distress or embarrassment that the publication may have caused to Mr Brown, which was never intended.
The case illustrates two key aspects of libel litigation.

Firstly, it is inherently uncertain: senior barristers on opposing sides took one view on particular allegations (that they could be defamatory), but the Judge may have ultimately taken a different one (that they were not).

Second, judgments about what is defamatory reflect what the Judge called ‘contemporary social values’ and can therefore change over time.

This is a nuanced and constantly evolving backdrop against which to determine the issue, and an allegation that might well have lowered the claimant in right thinking people’s estimation at the time it was first made in 1998 might not have the same impact today.