In Memoriam: Michael Foot

3 03 2010

The death has been announced today of Michael Foot, the former Leader of the Labour Party at the age of 96.  As well as being a politician he was a distinguished journalist and editor – and the joint author, at the age of 27, of the best selling pamphlet in English political history – “The Guilty Men“.  

Long before he rose to political prominence he made a number of important contributions to the protection of media freedom and the development of media law.  We will highlight just two.

In 1942, aged 29 Michael Foot was the Acting Editor of the Evening Standard and made a speech in favour of freedom of the press – at a time when the wartime government was attacking the “Daily Mirror” after it had criticised the conduct of the war by the Churchill government:

Later on Michael Foot was himself the defendant in a famous libel case – still the leading case on fair comment, Kemsley v Foot [1952] AC 345.  The facts are worth recalling.  In “Tribune” magazine on 10 March 1950, Michael Foot wrote an article under the headline “Lower than Kemsley” which began as follows (the words give a nice flavour of his style – along with pithy comments on responsible journalism):

“The Prize for the foulest piece of journalism perpetuated in this country for many a long year – and that is certainly saying something – must go to Mr. Herbert Gunn, editor of the Evening Standard, and all those associated with him in the publication of the attack on John Strachey last week. Since that newspaper has now sought to cover up its original story with long and misleading disputations on the matter, it is worth reprinting again the headlines which appeared in the Evening Standard on Thursday, March 2. Those headlines read as follows:- “Fuchs and Strachey: A Great New Crisis. War Minister has never disavowed Communism. Now Involved in M.I.5 Inefficiency Probe”. This ‘great new crisis’ was completely fabricated in the Evening Standard office. … But it is obvious from these headlines which we have reprinted what the Evening Standard was suggesting. It was suggesting that Strachey might be a supporter of Communism in the same sense in which Fuchs was a Communist. Otherwise the conjunction of headlines had no point at all. …  We would have liked to have seen the decent journalists who may be left in the other newspaper offices demanding that their craven editors should speak a word in the cause of honest journalism. …  And any journalist worth the name should consider his attitude to the disgraceful perversions, distortions, and innuendoes which some newspapers sedulously purvey”

Lord Kelmsley was a newspaper proprietor who owned, among other papers, “The Sunday Times” and the “Daily Sketch”.  He complained that the words complained of meant that

“he used his position as a director of newspaper companies to procure the publication of statements which he knew to be false and that his name was a byword in this respect”.

Mr Foot and the other defendants pleaded “fair comment”.  Lord Kelmsley, represented by amongh others, Mr Kenneth Diplock KC (later the senior Law Lord) applied to strike out this defence.  The judge struck the defence out but it was restored by the Court of Appeal – where Mr Foot appeared in person.  The House of Lords (where he was represented by Mr Gerald Gardiner KC – later Lord Chancellor) upheld the Court of Appeal judgment.


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