I'm surprised, but pleased. Robert Murat has launched legal action for libel against the tabs, and Sky.
Is it the end for 'he looked a bit funny, therefore he must have done it' speculation stories? If so, it could be time to reassess the libel fruit machine. Perhaps there is a chance if you don't have the cash. But we must wait and see.
I've been following the hounding of Murat for some time on this blog, not least because I felt it bore some resemblance to the disgraceful treatment meted out to Colin Stagg, once a suspect in the Rachel Nickell murder, entrapped into what wasn't even a confession of any kind whatsoever by a copper who said she'd only fancy him if he was the kind of person who'd commit violent crimes, and now utterly exonerated by forensic evidence.
The common thread to both is a we-know-best attitude from the tabs. So what if Stagg was quite rightly cleared by a judge? Some copper we spoke to reckons he done it. So we'll keep smearing him, spreading lies about him and insinuating he committed the crime, safe in the knowledge he's not wealthy enough to pay for a libel action. So what if Robert Murat didn't do it? He was investigated by the police, and someone reckoned he seemed a bit like Ian Huntley, therefore we can drag him through the shit. And he's not rich enough to sue, so...
Oh. Hang on a minute.
Well, it's surprising - even though no-win-no-fee arrangements do exist in libel cases, and there are hugely advantageous bonuses available for those lawyers who undertake them, skewed in favour of those taking on the most risky cases, it's certainly not common for an ordinary member of the public to be able to sue in this way. Why? Because the big legal firms use the no-win-no-fee rules to represent enormously wealthy celebrities rather than ordinary Joes and Josephines, safe in the knowledge that a Conditional Fee Arrangement on a solicitor's letter will make it brown-trouser-time in any editor's office.
The overwhelming majority of libel actions involve extraordinarily wealthy clients, frequently celebrities with a high public profile, upset at a slight against them in print, bringing in the big guns like Carter-Ruck or Schillings, and getting a nice little retraction and a few quid. For the ordinary chap on the street? A pat on the head, and off you trot to the PCC, and best of British in seeing what you can get from the self-regulatory organisation run by the newspapers themselves.
So, why Murat and why now? I think you have to look at the massive payout to Kate 'n' Gerry McCann from Express newspapers, along with the grovelling apology, garnered by a few letters from Carter-Ruck. At the time I suggested that that payout was more of a defeat than a victory, more a consolidation of the existing position - you still need money to play in the big libel casino. Perhaps this Murat development might change that; perhaps not. If it weren't for the McCanns getting half a million from Richard Desmond for being implicated in the disappearance of their daughter, would Murat have sued? It's hard to tell at this stage, but I tend to think the McCann payout merely reinforced existing problems with regard to libel: don't mess with the big boys; don't mess with those who have the money to sue you. If a side-effect of that was to legitimise a claim from another who has been tainted by the British tabs, then, after all, there might have been some good to come of it after all.
Would that help bring about a new era in which ordinary people are finally as likely to be able to challenge incorrect tabloid stories through libel as rich celebrities? I'm really not so sure about that. This might just be a one-off and only brought about because of the success of the McCanns' action.
We can hope it might stop papers regurgitating absolute bobbins rumours and suspicion merely because they've read it somewhere else. We can hope it might stop the weight of rumour and innuendo surrounding people like Robert Murat, who live slightly unorthodox lifestyles; we can hope it might stop the intrusion into their lives, the paying-for of accounts from ex-partners who nudge and wink when they're told to... but I don't know if that really will be the case.
All we can hope is that there is as much justice for Murat as there was for the McCanns. And I must also add that you have to wonder what the source has been for a lot of the 'new witness' stories involving Murat - has anyone been running a campaign against him? Has anyone been out to get him - and if so, why?