The decision by the UK publishers not to distribute Amanda Knox's autobiography has been interpreted in some media circles as being another example of the detrimental impact of our so called draconian libel laws. Headlines such as "UK updates libel laws, but not soon enough for Amanda Knox" appearing during the course of last week reflect this interpretation. In reality, the publisher's decision is more likely to have been based on an understandable concern not to expose themselves to potential contempt of Court as well as libel consequences, pending the outcome of the forthcoming re-trial in Italy.
The book's publishers, HarperCollins, are likely to have balanced the commercial benefits of releasing the book on the back of the wave of the inevitable pre-trial publicity and the resultant increase in sales against the risk of a substantial damages award. However, it would be more comforting to think that the decision was taken out of respect for the Italian judicial system in allowing it to run its course rather than seeking to pre-empt the outcome. As is so often the case, time is not of the essence so far as publication is concerned, in that the story will still be current and relevant, regardless of what is ultimately decided in Italy. Surely, it is better to wait for all the facts and circumstances to be fully considered by the Courts in order to ensure accuracy insofar as possible? This is of course an issue which the press, and to a lesser extent, book publishers, face on a daily basis, particularly in the internet age with the time sensitivities and intense rivalry between the print media and their online competitors. Often risks are taken before all the facts can be properly checked or known, and after publication has taken place, the damage is often irreparable.
While the debate on press regulation continues to rage, against the background of the somewhat ridiculous situation of two competing Royal Charters, the media industry as a whole could learn from the pragmatic decision of HarperCollins to delay publication in order to ensure that any individual, or judicial system, is not undermined or compromised.
Book publishers, like media barons, have absolute control over their platform for free speech and the dissemination of information. Most publishers utilise this power responsibly and are a credit to their profession. However, as in every other aspect of a free society, there will always be those who abuse their position, and therefore statutory or judicial sanctions are a necessary deterrent or remedy.
Even in my role as a claimant media lawyer, I have always totally supported genuine investigative journalism and a publisher's right to publish a diverse and controversial range of opinion. However, unfortunately we are living in the real world and our laws have to apply across the board to cover all manner of circumstances, and the more the media are seen to act responsibly and in accordance with their own codes of practice, the less the likelihood of lawyers such as myself becoming involved on behalf of either side.