By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
LONDON, Aug. 26 -- Author Salman Rushdie received a public apology in court Tuesday for defamatory comments made about him in a new book by a former bodyguard.
Lawyers said Rushdie's novel approach to libel law -- pursuing a quick retraction and apology rather than a cash settlement -- could be emulated by other public figures in Britain who seek to repair their reputations without a protracted trial.
"This is pioneering a new way of reconciling the right to freedom of free speech with the right to reputation," said Geoffrey Robertson, a lawyer for the award-winning novelist.
"Lies are lies," said Rushdie, 61, who two decades ago became a global symbol of free speech when Islamic fundamentalists called for his death over what they considered blasphemy in his best-known work, "The Satanic Verses."
Rushdie, in an interview, said he did not object to unflattering opinions of him and that he has "never gone to war" over them. But he said it was important to correct factual errors "so they don't creep into the record."
Under the terms of a court-approved settlement, former police officer and bodyguard Ronald Evans admitted that 11 statements he made about Rushdie in his book, "On Her Majesty's Service," were untrue.
Evans did not appear in London's High Court, but his attorney, Theo Solley, told the court that Evans apologized to Rushdie and his former wife, Elizabeth West, "for the hurt and damage they have suffered."
Solley said the apology was also made on behalf of ghostwriter Douglas Thompson and John Blake Publishing Ltd., which published the book.
Judge Nigel Teare applauded the "speedy resolution" of the matter and issued a formal declaration that the book's allegations were false. Evans, Thompson and the publishing house are also to pay Rushdie's legal bills.
The book was initially scheduled to be published this month. But Rushdie went to court after the Mail on Sunday newspaper published excerpts from the book earlier this month. The publisher agreed to destroy the first 4,000 copies of the book and will publish an amended version next month.
Because of the death threats following publication of "The Satanic Verses" in 1988, Rushdie was under police protection for nearly a decade. Evans was a British police driver assigned to Rushdie for some of that time.
In his book, in which he describes guarding several famous figures, Evans accused Rushdie of treating his guards callously and stingily and said he attempted to profit from the celebrity resulting from the death threats against him. Evans also alleged that West had married Rushdie for his money.
Evans also claimed in the book that relations were so bad with the author that he and other officers once locked Rushdie "in a cupboard under the stairs and all went to the local pub for a pint or two."
Rushdie on Tuesday called that and other statements by Evans "surreal."
At the courthouse Tuesday, West, 47, who is now Rushdie's ex-wife, said she married Rushdie because she loved him. But she said she was most bothered that Evans portrayed Rushdie as suicidal and "someone who couldn't cope" with the death threats.
The truth, she said, was that Rushdie's "strength of mind" sustained him.
"London is the libel capital of the world," said Mark Stephens, another lawyer representing Rushdie. He said that "people jet in from all over the world to launder their reputations" in London because British laws are "so heavily weighted against free speech and comment."
To be a plaintiff who loses a libel case in London, Stephens said, "You have to be a moron in a hurry."
Stephens said Rushdie could easily have won "substantial tax-free dollars" if he had pursued a full-scale libel suit against Evans and the publisher.
But Rushdie said he has never believed that winning a large cash award does anything to repair a reputation.
"Instead of going for the megabucks, you simply go to court for the important thing, which is to establish what's true and what's not," Rushdie said. "I think it's a clearer and simpler way of dealing with this."