In Britain, Revenge Is a Dish the Press Serves Cold

Kate Moss, June 6, 2005 in
New York City (AP Wideworld)

If you’ve read the New York Post or tuned in to E! lately, you know that last week’s big story was the photos of British fashion model Kate Moss, cutting and sniffing several lines of fine white powder, that were published by the British tabloid the Sunday Mirror.

The media reaction to the revelations in the Mirror has mostly focused on how Moss’s big-name clients are managing the crisis, and which of them are dumping her as the face of their products. (So far H&M, Burberry, Gloria Vanderbilt, Chanel and H. Stern have announced they will no longer be working with Moss). In last Sunday’s London Times, an unnamed magazine editor even expressed some sympathy for Moss: “We’ve all done things we shouldn’t in private places, and none of us would like them splashed all over the papers.”

True enough.

Except that we haven’t all sued newspapers for printing stories about us doing those things we shouldn’t.

The Sunday Mirror, a left-leaning “red top” tabloid, was sued earlier this year by Moss for claiming that she slipped into a coma after taking large amounts of cocaine four years ago in Spain. In June the London High Court agreed that the article — published in January in both print and online editions — contained “serious and defamatory allegations.” Undisclosed but substantial damages were awarded and the paper was forced to issue an apology. (British libel law has a substantially lower burden of proof than US law; at the same time, damages awarded in such suits tend to be lower than in US suits.)

The Mirror has not admitted that as soon as the High Court announced its decision, it sent a reporter to find evidence of Moss taking drugs. But the Independent revealed that Stephen Moyes, the reporter behind the Mirror’s story, spent many a seedy night in the company of Moss’s boyfriend, notorious drug addict and musician Pete Doherty, until eventually one of Doherty’s entourage offered up — for a price, of course, said to be about £50,000 — exactly what Moyes and his editor Richard Wallace were after: Photographic proof of the supermodel’s excessive indulgence, in the form of a video tape. In other words, this was not a lucky scoop that simply fell into someone’s lap.

There’s clearly a lesson here for the famous and hubristic. The prospect of victory in court over a news outlet, and the attendant bolster of reputation and wallet, might be attractive. But tabloids know a lot about vengeance. Jeffrey Archer, the disgraced British politician and novelist, understands this well: In 1987 he sued the Daily Star for saying that he used the services of a prostitute and paid her hush money. It took until 2001, but the Star ultimately had the satisfaction of seeing all of its original assertions vindicated and Archer imprisoned for fraud. A similar fate befell another politician, Jonathan Aitken. In 1999 he ended up in prison for perjury, four years after lying during his case for libel against the Guardian, who had accused him of political corruption. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said at the time:

“Libel is not a game: it is too often used by the rich, the powerful and the crooked to suppress proper reporting and fair comment. No one using the law against others can complain if the law is, in turn, used against them.”

News organizations — even British tabloids — hate to be proven wrong, or even to be subject to the appearance of being wrong. And if rule one of celebrity media relations is “Deny everything,” rule two is “Don’t sue a paper when what it printed is true.”

The most pressing concern now for Cocaine Kate is that the Metropolitan Police are considering prosecution for drugs offenses. If this leads to the swapping of Balenciaga for prison threads, Moss will find small comfort in the knowledge that she wouldn’t be the first Brit for whom bringing a libel case against a newspaper was the first step on the road to jail.

—Emma Garman

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Emma Garman is a contributor to CJR.