Misleading The Innocent

Last month (ie June) an appeal was launched by two north London “radical” bookshops to defend themselves against a libel action brought by a political researcher. Mark Taha is suing Searchlight magazine, which describes itself as “THE INTERNATIONAL ANTI-FASCIST MONTHLY”; he is also suing its editor, its printer, its distributor, and the two bookshops: Housmans and Bookmarks. The latter two, together with their supporters, have also been lobbying Parliament for a change in the law to make it impossible, or at least difficult, for a plaintiff to sue bookshops. (Under the present law anyone who distributes an allegedly defamatory article can be sued). The Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn has tabled two amendments to the pending Defamation Bill to prevent this. A number of prominent persons have lent their names to the campaign, and the Booksellers Association has chipped in £500 to a defence fund. Mr Taha’s action is said to be a threat to the survival of Britain’s rapidly diminishing “independent” bookshops!

As the law stands, a bookshop - or any other distributor - can plead innocent dissemination to a libel action. Innocent dissemination is a total defence at law and would certainly succeed if the libel were published in an established and well-respected newspaper (like the Sunday Telegraph!), but would just as certainly fail if it were published in Scallywag. Besides the nature of the publication which contained the libel, another factor to be taken into consideration by the judge (or jury) is the nature of the bookshop. But are all bookshops innocent disseminators? Apparently not.

In 1994, an associate of the aforementioned Mark Taha brought a libel action against twelve parties, including Housmans, Bookmarks and the Centerprise Trust (owners of the Centerprise Bookshop). This action has been settled against all but one of the defendants (and will now go to trial), but press reports that Centerprise “had” to settle its action (for £2,300) even though it had denied stocking the offending issue of Searchlight are grossly misleading.

Centerprise Trust is a registered charity which, in the 1994 financial year, received £147,154 from the London Borough of Hackney and £52,996 from the London Arts Board. Yet in April 1995, it was offering for sale at its Hackney Bookshop two “anarchist” publications which contained direct incitements to murder police officers, judges and named individuals, in particular one Michael Portillo.

The Metropolitan Police subsequently visited its premises and obtained samples of the offending publications: Class War and Green Anarchist, but no action was taken against the bookshop, and its parent trust is still being financed by the hapless ratepayer and taxpayer.

Both Housmans and Bookmarks stocked the offending February/March 1995 issue of Class War which proclaimed on its front page the legend “execute these scumbags”, these “scumbags” being a group of High Court judges! The latest issue of this magazine, which is currently on sale at Bookmarks, contains an article which gloats over a vicious assault on a woman police officer. And Bookmarks, far from being independent, is the trading name of I.S. Books Ltd, which is owned by a somewhat larger organisation, the Socialist Workers Party.

June 1996

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