ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Film director Roman Polanski won a libel suit in London today even though he didn't set foot in Britain for the trial. Polanski, who made "Rosemary's Baby," "Chinatown" and "The Pianist," testified by video from Paris. He was afraid that had he traveled to London, he might have been extradited to the United States. That's because Polanski fled to Europe in 1978 after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl. He fled while he was awaiting sentence. The libel concerns another chapter in Polanski's life, the murder of his wife Sharon Tate in 1969 by the cult led by Charles Manson. According to Vanity Fair magazine, shortly after that, Polanski made crude sexual advances to a woman at the Manhattan literary watering hole Elaine's. Michael Horsnell of the British daily The Times covered the libel trial that pitted Polanski against the magazine's publisher Conde Nast. And Polanski won.
Michael Horsnell, what exactly does he win?
Mr. MICHAEL HORSNELL (The Times of London): He wins damages of 50,000 pounds, which I suppose is approaching $90,000. And Conde Nast, the publishers, will have to pay the entire legal costs of the action, their costs, as well as Polanski's.
SIEGEL: Which I gather, in Polanski's case, are in the hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Mr. HORSNELL: Yes, that's right.
SIEGEL: What was Roman Polanski required to prove in this case?
Mr. HORSNELL: He wasn't actually required to prove anything. It was Conde Nast, or Vanity Fair, who had to prove that what they reported was accurate. And they failed to do so.
SIEGEL: What they reported in an article that wasn't actually a profile of Roman Polanski but was a piece about Elaine's; it was a piece about the restaurant.
Mr. HORSNELL: Indeed it was. It was a history of Elaine's, and there was just a sort of throwaway anecdote in the middle of it which referred to Polanski's alleged attempt to seduce a woman described as a Scandinavian beauty on his way to his wife's funeral. And he took exception to that, of course.
SIEGEL: He did, in fact, fly from Europe, stopping off in New York, and then going to Los Angeles for the funeral. But the first thing that the magazine had to consider was that they stood by the anecdote but not when it happened.
Mr. HORSNELL: Yes, indeed. They changed their minds to the extent that they said that although what they wrote was substantially true, the event didn't actually occur until two weeks after they said it had. And he hadn't actually stopped off in New York; he had actually flown directly from London to Los Angeles--that's in early August 1969--for his wife's funeral. The claim was made that he'd made this attempt at this seduction on his way home, but it wasn't true. And the jury took exception to the misreporting.
SIEGEL: The magazine tried to show that Roman Polanski's life has been sexually so promiscuous and so disorderly that he had no right suing for libel on anything regarding sex.
Mr. HORSNELL: That's quite right. I mean, he is a self-confessed philanderer. He went through a catalog of sexual conquests, which he said began within a month of Sharon Tate's death, although he confessed to a lifetime of seductions and philandering and made no secret of it. But what he did take exception to was that he had told this woman he allegedly approached in Elaine's that he would make her the next Sharon Tate, which he couldn't accept.
SIEGEL: He more or less testified, `Yes, I'm a dirty old man, but I didn't take in vain the memory of my wife in that way.'
Mr. HORSNELL: That's a very good summary. Yes.
SIEGEL: Now tell us about this arrangement, which I gather this was unique for him to win without being in court, appearing on a video screen in the courtroom.
Mr. HORSNELL: Yes. It's the first time that a complainant in a libel case has been allowed to give evidence without being in court. Our House of Lords over here decided that despite the fact he had a record and was wanted in the United States, that shouldn't debar him from seeking redress in the English courts for this libel.
SIEGEL: This case has unfolded in court during a period when, obviously, London has had bigger things on its mind. Has it actually been covered heavily by the papers nonetheless?
Mr. HORSNELL: It has. In a sense, it's been a feeling of light relief really because hearing all of Polanski's confessions of his infidelities and his philandering has caused a lot of intrigue. And with all the dreadful news about the bombings here in London, there's been--I don't know--a degree of light relief in it, I think.
SIEGEL: Michael Horsnell, thanks a lot for talking with us today.
Mr. HORSNELL: My pleasure.
SIEGEL: Reporter Michael Horsnell of The Times of London, who covered the libel trial that was won today by filmmaker Roman Polanski against Conde Nast, the publisher of Vanity Fair magazine.
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