Sugar's threat to press freedom

By Stephen Pollard
August 6, 2009

As you may have read, Lord Sugar has written to the journalist Quentin Letts threatening him with legal action, after Letts called Lord Sugar a 'telly peer' who 'doesn't have an enormous intellect'.

I'll leave you to make up your minds about the veracity of his comment. But there's an important point raised by Lord Sugar's behaviour, which is outlined in this round robin letter to the Spectator which some of us have signed:

Sir: We the undersigned wish to condemn Baron Sugar of Clapton's threatened legal action against our colleague Quentin Letts for calling him a ‘telly peer' who ‘doesn't seem to have an enormous intellect' on LBC on 20 July. According to a letter Mr Letts received from Herbert Smith, Lord Sugar will issue a writ against Mr Letts for libel unless he pays his legal costs to date, donates an undisclosed sum to a charity and gives a written undertaking never to criticise him again.

When journalists have been sued by public figures in the past - particularly by Members of Parliament - the convention has been to sue the newspaper or broadcaster that provided them with a platform, not to pursue the journalist personally. In this way, Britain's libel laws have been kept on a level playing field, since few individual journalists can afford to fight a legal battle on their own. However, Lord Sugar has dispensed with this convention. No corresponding action has been threatened against LBC, which means that if Mr Letts decides not to bow to Lord Sugar's demands, he faces potentially ruinous costs a proportion - as much as a third - of which he wouldn't recover, even if he won.

The absence of a First Amendment in Britain means that we depend to a great extent on the observance of legal convention to preserve our free speech. If parliamentarians are now going to threaten to sue individual journalists personally, members of the press will be inhibited from scrutinising them in future. This is a particularly dangerous development, given how many journalists are now working as freelancers.

We urge Lord Sugar to withdraw his threat so we can continue to write and speak freely about public figures.


Roger Alton, Matthew d'Ancona, Liz Anderson, Martin Bright, Jeremy Clarke, Nick Cohen, Nicholas Coleridge, Lloyd Evans, James Forsyth, Julia Hobsbawm, Rachel Johnson, Dylan Jones, Mary Killen, India Knight, Rod Liddle, John Micklethwait, Fraser Nelson, Matthew Parris, Stephen Pollard, Hugo Rifkind, Andrew Roberts, Alan Rusbridger, Sebastian Shakespeare, Paul Staines, Sarah Standing, Mary Wakefield, Toby Young



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