Publishing nearly three months after its release, Random House Canada has pulled the plug on Osama: The Making Of A Terrorist because of unspecified "legal issues."
Random House's executive vice-president and director of sales, Duncan Shields, sent a terse letter to retailers October 7 asking them to remove the book by award-winning former Washington Post scribe Jonathan Randal from displays and "cease selling of this title."
The two-paragraph missive offers no explanation and asks retailers to contact their Random House sales rep or customer service department at an 800 number if they have any questions.
The move marks the third time in recent months that the publisher or its UK division has ordered booksellers to pull titles related to 9/11 and the U.S. war on terror.
Random House, however, is offering little explanation. Shields did not return a call from NOW requesting comment. A spokesperson for the publisher's U.S. division, New York-based Knopf, hung up on this reporter. And all Random House Canada spokesperson Tracey Turriff would offer is that "our legal department felt it was the best course of action, but I don't have more specifics than that."
Tougher libel laws in Canada and the UK may be behind Random House's decision. While Randal's book has been pulled here, it's still available in U.S. stores. Amazon.com still offer the biography on its Web site, while its Canuck counterpart, Amazon.ca, does not.
NOW's libel lawyer, John Ward, says it's easier for plaintiffs to win libel cases in the UK and Canada because the onus is on publishers to prove that the book is not libellous. In the U.S., the burden of proof is reversed - it's on the person who is suing to prove that what is published about them is libellous.
"Because they have the freedom of the press in their Bill of Rights," Ward says, "a plaintiff can only succeed if he can show that what was published about him was published with malice, was not true and intended to do damage to the person's reputation or was not carefully researched. In Canada, there would be no such exemption."
In April, Random House in the UK dropped plans to publish Craig Unger's House Of Bush, House Of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between The World's Two Most Powerful Dynasties and Gerald Posner's While America Slept: The Failure To Prevent 9/11. These titles, like Randal's Osama, are still available in the U.S.
Bookseller magazine recently quoted Random House's British chairman, Simon Master, as saying that "UK libel laws and legal processes are stifling legitimate and responsible freedom of speech."
Randal, for his part, has decided to stay out of the fray, e-mailing NOW from France, where he is currently living, that "I hate to be party to censorship, but I cannot (offer) any comment on Random House's decision."