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The Press: Shredding the Gag

3 minute read

Journalistic freedom in Britain occasionally takes second place to legal restraints such as the Official Secrets Act, which guards government information. Even in civil affairs, a stiff law restricts coverage of matters under court review if the stories could influence the outcome of specific cases. For ten years this civil restriction has throttled coverage of a poignant and important story: the long legal fight, still proceeding in the courts, over damages to be paid to those crippled by the drug thalidomide. The London Sunday Times has now torn apart the gag rule, setting up a classic court v. press conflict.

For Sunday Times Editor Harold Evans, it was a story that would not go away. He made himself an expert on the medical and legal aspects of thalidomide starting in 1961, when the drug’s effects on fetuses became known. Over the years he had reporters follow the litigation between the more than 400 English families involved and the giant Distillers Company Limited, one of whose former subsidiaries distributed thalidomide in Britain. Distillers, maker of the world’s bestselling brands of Scotch and gin, made financial settlements with some of the families in 1968. But the majority of the cases dragged on while the deformed children grew toward adolescence and the burden on their parents multiplied.

By this summer, Evans had had enough. He was angered by the endless courtroom delays and by what he considered Distillers’ niggardly settlements (an average of $23,000 per child, compared with $250,000 in Sweden). He assigned four reporters to do exhaustive research, and the result was an impassioned six-part series, “Our Thalidomide Children.” The stories, which began appearing in September, were sharply angled against Distillers and condemned the protracted battle as a “national shame.” Distillers’ latest offer to establish an $8,000,000 trust fund for all victims would, the paper claimed, “probably be insufficient to ward off simple destitution” for the most severely deformed; the paper argued that an inadequate compensation settlement “would rank as one of the worst single failures of the English legal system.”

Before the sixth article—a 14,000 word summary—appeared, Distillers won a contempt citation against the Sunday Times barring completion of the series. Ruling on Distillers’ suit, Lord Widgery, the Lord Chief Justice, noted that “the avowed purpose of the article is to persuade Distillers to pay more, or to settle for a higher figure than they would otherwise be minded to settle for.” That is exactly what Evans intended, and, while he appeals the contempt citation, he can find solace in the public outcry aroused by the first five articles: a parliamentary motion for Distillers to honor its “moral responsibilities” has gained 254 signatures, and a wide-ranging debate on British compensation laws was to begin this week in the House of Commons.

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