Whitaker vs Maxwell

Whitaker vs Maxwell

Since 1951 David Whitaker and The Bookseller had tracked the activities of Robert Maxwell following his acquisition of the long-established book wholesaler Simpkins Marshall. After years of dubious accounting, it collapsed, causing massive losses to the publishing industry. Publishers could not recover their stock, which they believed had been on sale or return, and, needless to say, the liquidators could not recover the loans which Maxwell had generously made to his other companies but which were now said to be irrecoverable.

From then on, David Whitaker kept a beady eye on the ever-growing power of Maxwell in the printing and publishing industry. Maxwell neither forgave nor forgot The Bookseller’s coverage of his activities. It was only a matter of time before The Bookseller received a libel writ which Maxwell showered so liberally on his critics. Newspapers, and particularly local papers in Oxford, were regularly sued as well as individuals and Private Eye. When Maxwell first stood for Parliament, he sued his opponent and his wife; even the actor Robert Morley had been successfully sued for perceptive remarks on BBC’s “Any Questions” about Maxwell’s misuse of his private companies. However, in David Whitaker he met a man of principle who would not be bullied and was to inflict the most crushing libel defeat Maxwell ever suffered.

On 6th June 1981, The Bookseller published a news report about Maxwell’s Oxford-based Pergamon Press, headlined “Pergamon Sackings Attacked”. It reported how Maxwell had fired nine striking employees, accusing them in press releases of  “deliberately sacking themselves and being Trotskyists and politically motivated musketeers supported by their drunken rent-a-mob friends and engaging in acts of wanton sabotage”. It reported how Oxford City Labour Party and the Union ASTMS, of which Maxwell was a member, had criticised his conduct.

Maxwell telephoned David Whitaker demanding a retraction, saying he would issue a writ if he did not apologise. It led to this remarkable exchange.

Maxwell said he “was tired of The Bookseller libelling [him] when it felt like it”.

“Balls”, replied Whitaker.

“What did you say?” exclaimed Maxwell.

“Rubbish”, said Whitaker.

“Are you saying I’m lying?” retorted Maxwell.

“No, just very very mistaken.”

A libel writ was swiftly followed by Maxwell’s bombastic statement to the Times: “Whitaker has brought this on himself. I have no option but to go to court unless they want to make a grovelling apology.” Bizarrely his writ claimed that he had been portrayed as a bad and oppressive employer, behaving inconsistently with his membership of ASTMS and the Labour Party. Unlike many who kowtowed to Maxwell when sued for libel, Whitaker was determined to stand up for the printers and publishers whose livelihoods had been destroyed by Maxwell as he hoovered up their companies, and for the right of The Bookseller to report matters of legitimate interest to the book trade. I was engaged to defend against Maxwell’s outlandish claims.

There was no shortage of witnesses against Maxwell. Whitaker set about defending the case fearlessly. He seemed to know everyone in the publishing and printing world and they were happy to help his case. Most remarkable were two financial directors of Caxton Publishing, Andrew Napper and Adrian Warbey, who both successfully sued Maxwell for unfair dismissal. Warbey had not endeared himself to Maxwell by perspicaciously recommending that Maxwell’s conduct in relation to Leasco should be referred to the Fraud Squad. They discovered that Maxwell was lying when he claimed to be unable to attend their Industrial Tribunal hearings owing to unexpected trips to Japan. By dint of their sleuthing, they got a tip from Maxwell’s chauffeur that the Rolls was parked at Maxwell House, where he was, in fact, working with a full diary of appointments and social engagements. This exposure of Maxwell’s mendacity predated by 10 years the final exposure of his frauds.

Still, Maxwell tried to intimidate Whitaker. The case would last at least six weeks, not eight days, he asserted. He would call 50 to 60 witnesses. David was undaunted. Maxwell fired his solicitors, who had evidently given him unwelcome advice about his prospects of success. He shopped around five leading QCs in his quest for favourable advice. He now offered to settle for a mere £1,000. Whitaker had heard from the Sunday Times that the one person Maxwell was scared of encountering in court was John Wilmers QC. Whitaker had cannily hired him, wryly observing that Wilmers scared him and he, after all, was paying his fees.

Maxwell capitulated ignominiously, having failed to extract any apology or damages and instead paid every last penny of The Bookseller’s £30,000 legal costs. He did not threaten The Bookseller again and it continued to report on Maxwell’s activities in the publishing world.

Some years later I met Maxwell and we discussed the case. “My lawyers told me to settle, but I didn’t want to,” he growled. “They gave you absolutely the right advice and your problem was that you underestimated David Whitaker.” I sensed that the old rogue reluctantly acknowledged that I was right.


David Hooper was a defamation and IP lawyer advising on all areas of media law, and represented The Bookseller for a number of years until his retirement