How to reply to a libel threat…

A couple of days ago I bought a copy of Private Eye: The First 50 Years by Adam MacQueen, which I’ve been dipping into from time to time. This is in an  A-Z format that encourages one to sample rather than read straight through  like a history book. I think it’s excellent: not only great fun, with several “laugh-out-loud” passages, but also a very interesting piece of social history.

Last night I came across the book’s account of the famous episode of Arkell versus Pressdram , one of the Eye‘s many brushes with libel law, Pressdram being the name of the company that publishes said organ. I thought I’d post it here for those who haven’t heard of it because I find it quite inspirational. It’s actually been a while since anyone threatened me with a libel action but when that did happen, many moons ago, my response was similar in spirit (though not in form) to the memorable reply given by the Eye in the correspondence below (with, I might add, the same result):

Solicitor’s Letter to Private Eye:

We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd.

His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory.

We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter. Mr Arkell’s first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.

Response from Private Eye:

We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell.

We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.

No further letters were received from Mr Arkell’s solicitors. This legendary exchange of letters has now become a well-known in-joke for solicitors. So if you ever get a letter from a solicitor trying to frighten you with threats of libel, or simply want someone to fuck off for some other reason, I suggest you refer them to the Reply Given in Arkell versus Pressdram.

13 Responses to “How to reply to a libel threat…”

  1. David Whitehouse. Says:

    There is another funny media story that ends in the FO comment/instruction.

    When Kelvin Mckenzie was editor of the Sun he got a letter, which said something like…

    I knew you when we were at school together and have observed your rise to fame and power whilst I have stayed a humble journalist at a local paper…I need a break and wondered if I could come and work at the Sun…however knowing your reputation you will probably tell me to fuck off.

    Predictably the reply was.

    Dear XXXXX,

    You are right.

    Fuck Off.

    Yours sincerely,

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    An alternative way to put it is “Go forth and multiply”.

    I don’t think I would have had the nerve to write that reply unless I was tired and emotional…

    • I’ve heard worse.


    • An alternative way to put it is “Go forth and multiply”.

      Noah famously issued this edict when the animals left the ark. A while later, he came back to the ark, to find two snakes still there. “I thought I told you to go forth and multiply!” “We can’t; we’re adders.”

  3. Who threatened you with a libel action, and for what? A quick Googling didn’t turn anything up. (There was a Detective Superintendent with your name who won substantial damages as a libel plaintiff, but that’s the closest I could find.)

    • telescoper Says:

      It never went to court, so was not reported. I do not wish to go into details here. I did reply to the person concerned saying that if he wanted to sue me for libel he should go ahead. He didn’t, but I suppose still might at some point in the future.

  4. Did you hear the Radio 4 piece on Private Eye? ( It had a few interesting tidbits, especially the story of Peter Carter-Ruck’s meeting with the Private Eye team

  5. Although much more purile, the letters Pirate Bay write in reply to legal threats are definitely amusing

    • Perhaps, but note that one of the ringleaders of the Pirate Bay was recently convicted. Their early responses were over the top and aggressive, but at the end of the day it was mostly hot air.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Philip: Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Pirate Bay it’s not hot air they were spouting. That description is appropriate only if you back off under legal threat, not if you get convicted.

  6. I just wish I could find out what it was that Private Eye said about Mr Arkell in the first place,

  7. […] I was refrained from referring the sender of this intentionally intimidatory message to the response given in Arkell versus Pressdram but it soon became clear that a number of other scientists on Twitter had received similar […]

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