Reference:  EWCA Civ 161;  EMLR 325
Court: Court of Appeal
Judge: Hirst, Peter Gibson & May LJJ
Date of judgment: 19 Nov 1998
Summary: Defamation - libel - defamatory content - ridicule - attribution of joke - whether words capable of being defamatory
Instructing Solicitors: Bristows Cooke & Carpmael for the Defendant/Respondent
The operatic diva, Jessye Norman, sued for libel over the attribution to her in Classic CD music magazine of a joke which involved her getting stuck, being advised to exit sideways from the situation and responding with the line “Honey, I ain’t got no sideways”. She put various defamatory interpretations on this story. Her claim was struck out by Buckley J on the grounds that the words could not carry a defamatory meaning. She appealed.
Whether the attribution of this joke was capable of conveying a meaning defamatory of the claimant.
Dismissing the appeal:
(1) Where words were alleged to be defamatory because they exposed a claimant to ridicule a line had to be drawn between insults and ridicule; in doing so the perceived intention of the writer could be relevant.
(2) The article was generally sympathetic and favourable, and did not disclose an intention to ridicule.
(3) The words could not bear any of the defamatory meanings advanced.
There was no attempt to justify the published statement, and there was evidence that the story was an old chestnut of the operatic world that had been attributed to others in the past. But Jessye Norman almost certainly suffered far worse injury to her reputation through bringing this claim (the outcome of which was widely reported) than she could have done from the initial article, published in a specialist magazine.