Libel tourism goes to London
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 23 July 2005)

It's not easy to understand why Roman Polanski, the pedophiliac movie director and fugitive, went to so much trouble to defend his reputation on closed-circuit TV in a London court this week. In Los Angeles, 28 years ago, Polanski pleaded guilty after a 13-year-old testified that he fed her Champagne and Quaaludes and then sodomized her. At the time he was 44. Common sense suggests that he had no reputation to lose. But as it turns out, common sense had nothing to do with this case.

Polanski claims he was libelled in July, 2002, by Vanity Fair. He lives in Paris and the magazine is published in New York but of course he chose to sue in London. Britain's law takes such a kindly view of libel plaintiffs that it's created a small industry of "libel tourism," as a leading barrister called it. And yesterday, after four days of testimony, Polanski and his lawyers proved they had chosen wisely. The jury came down on his side and awarded (ps)50,000 in damages.

Still, the net effect of the suit is to magnify the power of the original affront, spreading it through news outlets across the world. Had Polanski not sued, the anecdote would have passed largely unnoticed. But the urge to strike back trumped prudence. Polanski was enraged by an article about Elaine's, the New York restaurant, which quoted Lewis Lapham of Harper's. He said people in Elaine's gasped one summer night in 1969 when Polanski showed up. He was on the way to the funeral of his wife, Sharon Tate, who had been murdered with four others by Charles Manson's cultists. According to Lapham, Polanski tried to seduce a "gorgeous Swedish girl" he'd not met before, promising, "I will make another Sharon Tate out of you."

On Monday Polanski told the London court, "That was the worst thing ever written about me." He has a poor memory or grotesquely twisted responses. In California he was accused of shameful, law-breaking conduct. Vanity Fair merely described grossly inappropriate conversation. It is as if Stalin had acknowledged creating death camps and then grown furious when accused of drunk driving.

But the law had to take Polanski's claim seriously. Vanity Fair acknowledged that Polanski wasn't on his way to the funeral but otherwise supported its story. Lapham and a man accompanying the woman who allegedly attracted Polanski testified for the magazine. Apparently the woman left with her boyfriend and pronounced Polanski "creepy," but was unavailable to testify, having disappeared from sight long ago. Mia Farrow, who says she was with Polanski on this occasion, claimed he was so upset that he could think of nothing but Sharon's death; still, she couldn't remember whether she spent the whole evening with him.

Polanski's California legal troubles began in 1977 when police in Los Angeles charged him with the statutory rape of a girl named Samantha Gailey. He had claimed to be photographing for Vogue but took more interest in sex. He was arrested the day after. (Now a plump 40-year-old mother of three in Hawaii, she claims she forgave him long ago.) The usual negotiations with law officers produced an agreement. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge, unlawful sex with a minor, on the understanding that he would not be sent to jail. But before sentencing he came to believe that the judge might frown on this amiable contract, overturn it, and imprison him. So he left abruptly for the safety of France, whose extradition treaty with the U.S. does not apply in this case.

Ever since, all his movies, from the good (The Pianist) to the mediocre (Frantic) to the despicable (Bitter Moon), have been made abroad, in countries with which the U.S. does not have overly stringent extradition arrangements. He and his lawyers consider Britain a place to be avoided, since police might seize him and send him back to California (where prosecutors grow more testy about his absence with each passing decade and could not be expected to show mercy).

Polanski petitioned the House of Lords to be allowed to testify by Paris-London videolink and the law lords, who have never granted any such favour before, agreed. This meant that England put itself in the business of helping to save a Frenchman of Polish extraction from American justice. Polanski, now finishing his version of Oliver Twist, will know the place in that novel where Dickens has Mr. Bumble deliver the definitive verdict on such cases: "the law is a ass, a idiot."

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