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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 6

Pitfalls For Publishers

page 9

Pitfalls For Publishers.

No right-minded person can feel regret when the deliberate libeller meets with the punishment, by civil process or otherwise, which his offence merits. But two recent libel cases at home are interesting and instructive as showing that the libel law is full of pitfalls which the utmost vigilance may well fail to detect. The first is the case of Pinnock v. Chapman & Hall, heard last December. The defendants had published a novel by Major Ellis, in which the leading character, James Peacock, goes out to Sierra Leone as a clerk, robs a drunken employer, goes into business on his own account, has difficulties with his middlemen, achieves success by systematic rascality, sells his business to a company, returns to England, marries a lady twenty years his junior, settles down as a personage of some local importance, and hunts with the local pack. It happened that the career in question very closely corresponded with that of one James Pinnock, who in fact deposed that (of course excepting the dishonesty, and making changes in the localities, African and English), it was a fairly correct outline of his own life. In fact, he found the cap fit him so closely that he could only suppose that it was made for him; and his contention was that in the novel in question his character was exposed to obloquy. The jury agreed with this view, and the publishers— wholly innocent of any offence—were cast in £200 damages, and costs to a much heavier amount. If any person were guilty of malicious libel, it was the author, who escaped scot-free. It is fair to add that he most distinctly denied any personal reference in the book, and professed entire ignorance of Mr Pinnock and his African career. It is curious to note how widely the press comments differ; some wholly acquitting the author, and others maintaining that such a sequence of coincidences—some half-dozen in number—was impossible. Our own idea is, not only that a grave wrong was done to the publishers, but that the theory of coincidence is by far the most probable. Let any one inclined to be sceptical on this point ponder the other case to which we refer—Einstein v. Stevens, heard last November—the issue of which our authority (the Stationery Trades Journal) provokingly omits to state. In the « Random Readings » of the Family Herald—a well-known column of jokes, good and bad, old and new, there appeared, on the 15th April, the following feeble jest: « ؟What caused Einstein's fire—too much inflammable material? No—too much insurance. » Mr Stevens, the publisher, was soon afterwards surprised at receiving a writ for damages from one Einstein, who it appeared had had a fire at Tunbridge Wells some five years before, who had separate insurances on house and contents, and who had found considerable difficulty in recovering the insurance money from the companies interested. Mr Einstein, too, was the only person of that name in the London Post Office Directory. Mr Stevens must have been at considerable pains to trace the miserable item that got him into trouble; but he succeeded, and proved that he took it from a San Francisco paper, and further, that it had been published in New York before the plaintiff had his misfortune at Tunbridge Wells; and, moreover, that the name Einstein was by no means uncommon in the United States. We presume that the action fell through—though had the jury been as addlepated as those in Mr Pinnock's case, they would undoubtedly have given Mr Einstein exemplary damages. Now the coincidences in the Einstein case were even more remarkable than in the other, yet it was impossible that he—the only man in the United Kingdom to whom the words could be applied—could have been intended. These two cases have a very serious aspect, affecting both publishers of fiction and journalists. It is impossible that a story, dealing with human action and motive, and probable sequences of events, cannot be construed as reflecting upon somebody, and people will always be found vain enough to suppose that their little personal concerns have in some way come to the knowledge of the author. Though the plot be improbable to the verge of absurdity, the shaft sped at a venture may yet find a mark; the more wildly improbable the incidents, the more convincing proof of malice will an ordinary jury discover; while the judge, as likely as not, will confirm them in their view, and pile costs upon damages. In the case of a newspaper, the most innocent and imbecile three-line clipping may prove a boomerang, that will return with stunning effect. In either case, the publisher's lot is not a happy one.