Recently the High Court of Justice in London handed down a
ruling in favour of The Guardian newspaper that furthers the
protection afforded to writers of satirical articles from
Sir Elton John commenced proceedings against The Guardian for
libel after it published a spoof article in July 2008 written by
Marina Hyde. The article, "A peek into the diary of Sir Elton
John" recorded his fictional thoughts about his AIDS charity
Counsel for Sir Elton alleged the article ridiculed his
client's commitment to the AIDS charity and suggested that Sir
Elton saw the ball as an opportunity for self-promotion and meeting
celebrities rather than helping people. The Guardian denied the
allegations and pleaded, as an alternative defence, "fair
Justice Tugendhat struck out Sir Elton's claim after finding
that the words complained of were not capable of bearing the
alleged meanings. His Honour stated that the meaning of the words
depended upon their context, and that because the article appeared
in the weekend section of the newspaper, it was not to be regarded
as a "hard news" piece. Although the attribution of the
words by the journalist to Sir Elton was literally false, it was
found that no reasonable reader could have been be misled.
Journalists will no doubt welcome Justice Tugendhat's
finding that the article was little more than an exercise in irony.
This is to be compared with the situation where the joke might not
be readily apparent or malice is involved (see our last eAlert,
"Olympian wins substantial damages for defamation"
In Australia, both the common law and the statutory
"triviality defence" deter people from bringing frivolous
defamation claims. A defamation action will be unsuccessful if the
defendant can prove that the circumstances of publication were such
that the plaintiff was unlikely to sustain any real harm.
Light hearted "teasing" of Sir Elton in Australia
would be likely to attract such a defence, although it is always
wise to seek pre-publication advice before going to print.
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