What have I done to deserve this?

The Pet Shop Boys are suing philosopher Roger Scruton for libel.

Published April 15, 1999 7:00PM (EDT)

British philosopher Roger Scruton is controversial in his country for his hostile views on modernity and his love of fox-hunting. His recent book, "An Intelligent Person's Guide to Culture," is in many ways an ode to such titans of gravitas as Wagner, Strauss and Mozart. Riding his high horse to Valhalla, the 55-year-old author also managed to sling a few arrows at the contemporary pop music scene. Now it seems that one of his prey has fired back.

The Pet Shop Boys -- the synthesizer-driven band best known for their 1985 hit, "West End Girls" -- are taking Scruton to court for the book's suggestion that their music owes more to technology than to creativity. The allegedly libelous phrase reads as follows:

Sometimes, as with the Spice Girls or the Pet Shop Boys, serious doubts arise as to whether the performers made more than a minimal contribution to the recording, which owes its trademark to subsequent sound engineering, designed precisely to make it unrepeatable.

In other words, Scruton intimates that the band's members -- Neil Tennant, 43, and Chris Lowe, 39, both former rock critics -- owe their success to their producers and sound engineers, who may not have received enough credit for their efforts.

The band has issued a high court writ and demanded damages of up to $80,000 -- even though in Britain the jury usually determines how much the plaintiff shall receive in the event that the court rules in its favor. Jason McHugh, a London libel lawyer, thinks that while it's not the strongest case he's ever heard, the band has a good chance of winning. "Presumably the Pet Shop Boys and the Spice Girls own the copyright of their songs, and the plaintiff can make the case that this passage alleges that they are not the rightful owners of the copyright."

David Hooper, a libel expert whose book "Reputations Under Fire" will be published in July, thinks that the defense shouldn't have much of a problem. Based on the legal principle of fair comment, in which a reasonable person can make a comment in the public interest, the defense can say that it was merely stating an opinion. If that fails, Hooper says that the defense has a second option. "The prosecution must prove that the readers of this book are the same people who listen to the music and will be adversely affected against the music. But the whole thing seems so artificial."

Unlike Britain, the United States takes preventive measures against such libel cases by using the precedent known as the Sullivan defense, in which the claimant must prove malice before the case proceeds to the courts.

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Following its lavish 75th anniversary celebration at New York's Metropolitan Club, Simon & Schuster can really start cutting the rug at its staff party next Tuesday. "Scream" director Wes Craven will write a novel for the publisher, and the film rights to the book "The Fountain Society" have been sold for "substantial seven figures" to DreamWorks. The book comes out this fall; the movie in 2001.

On a more domestic note, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who once denied any predilection for cookie baking, has signed on to write about White House entertaining, Clinton style -- also for Simon & Schuster. "This book will enable readers to see close-up just how the Clintons' marvelous style of entertaining has evolved over the years," reads the press release. We wonder if the book begins with some pizza ordering suggestions.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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