John v Guardian News & Media Ltd
Reference:  EWHC 3066
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 12 Dec 2008
Summary: Defamation – Libel – Meaning – Ruling on meaning – Whether words capable of bearing contended meaning – Comment
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Instructing Solicitors: Carter Ruck for the Claimant; Isobel Griffiths for the Defendant
Sir Elton John sued the publishers of The Guardian over an article contained within the newspaper’s ‘Weekend’ magazine supplement which purported to be his diary. The article made reference to the singer’s “preposterously lavish” annual charity ball stating, “Once we’ve subtracted all these costs, the leftovers go to my foundation. I call this care-o-nomics.” The Claimant argued that the article gave the impression he “hosts the White Tie & Tiara Ball knowing that once the costs of the ball have been covered only the small proportion of the money raised which is left over is available for the Elton John Aids Foundation to distribute to good causes,” and that he “uses the White Tie & Tiara Ball as an occasion for meeting celebrities and/or self promotion rather than for raising money for EJAF.” He also claimed aggravated damages, alleging that the columnist “knew the words complained of were false”. The Defendant applied to strike out the claim, alternatively for summary judgment
Whether the words complained of (1) were capable of bearing the meanings contended by the Claimant and/or (2) were only capable of being regarded as comment.
Striking out the claim:
The Judge noted that context was important and that the piece appeared in the Weekend section of the paper, rather than in news. The designation of the section was considered to assist in understanding the extent to which particular speech was to be understood to be factual or not. He ruled that the words complained of could not be understood by a reasonable reader of The Guardian Weekend section as containing the serious allegation pleaded. If that was the allegation being made, a reasonable reader would expect so serious an allegation to be made without humour, and explicitly, in a part of the newspaper devoted to news. In light of this conclusion and the fact that there was no draft amended meaning for the court to consider, the question as to whether the words complained of were only capable of bearing a meaning of comment did not arise.
A victory for the press, and for satire. It will be interesting in future ‘irony’ cases to see where the line will be drawn in relation to what the reasonable reader would understand to be a statement of fact as opposed to statements which are understood to be ironic.