‘I am not an investigative journalist,’ says former Mirror editor Roy Greenslade, ‘and I don’t have much time for people like John Pilger and Duncan Campbell.’
If you’re a journalist, you’ll be familiar with Greenslade (now a professor at City University and a prolific media commentator). Did that quote affect your opinion of him?
I’m pondering this after reading Roy’s Guardian article ‘Good sense as judges strike out two “weak” libel actions’, in which Roy praises the recent decisions of Mrs Justice Sharp – the thinking person’s Mr Justice Eady, apparently.
One of the rejected cases was a blatant forum-shopping exercise in which a South African publication was sued in England over an article barely seen here. Fair enough. The other concerned remarks made in a Telegraph diary piece (aka gossip column) about Formula One heiress Petra Ecclestone.
Ecclestone, a fashion designer (really, not in the Coleen sense), was quoted as saying: ‘I am not a veggie and I don’t have much time for people like the McCartneys and Annie Lennox.’ Her lawyers argued that this implied she was ‘disrespectful and dismissive’ of these people ‘to the point of being willing to disparage them publicly for promoting vegetarianism’. For this reason the item was defamatory. Sharp J disagreed, finding that ‘right-thinking members of society’ would think no less of Ecclestone after reading the quote, and that whether or not she actually said it was irrelevant.
‘Heartening news,’ says Greenslade. Yet I have no doubt that he would be mortified to open a national newspaper and read the quote at the top of this post. It is, of course, made up. But that’s irrelevant, right?
Like Eady J’s preliminary ruling in Singh vs Chiropractors, Sharp’s decision seems, on the face of it, plain wrong. She acknowledges (as we hear from Greenslade’s source, Nigel Harrison of Foot Anstey):
It might be that a sector of the public (ie those who disapproved of the use of leather or eating animal products) could think the less of the claimant for taking the opposite stance, and might even do so because of what she is reported to have said about the McCartneys and Annie Lennox. But the test is not whether a sector of the public could think less of the claimant… but whether ordinary reasonable people in our society as a whole, or ‘the public’ generally could do so.
Really? My understanding was that damage to professional reputation was potentially actionable. Yet one’s profession is invariably an idiosyncratic minority. By Sharp J’s reasoning, a trade magazine, for example, could disparage someone’s abilities as much as they liked, with or without foundation, to the unlimited detriment of their professional standing and livelihood, because ‘“the public” generally’ would have no clue what they were going on about, and would thus not be swayed in their opinion of the victim.
Ecclestone is currently working to establish herself in the fashion industry; vegetarianism and the McCartneys (not least the late militantly vegetarian McCartney) are serious and divisive issues in this world. That’s where her professional reputation resides, and where the diary writer must have known the remark, whether or not it was ever made (Ecclestone says not), would create a frisson of ill will. While applauding Sharp’s inclination to set a reasonably high bar, I wonder about the implications of dismissing this so early and on such broad grounds.
The complaint may have been relatively trivial, but the issue isn’t. Does the Ecclestone example feel different because it’s materially different, or just because we think Roy is a serious person in a serious business, while Petra isn’t? Would the respective quotes damage her less than him? Or is it always OK for journalists to invent quotes to stir up controversy? And if it isn’t, what, if not libel actions, is to prevent them doing it?