Libel cases brought by the likes of gay artist Sir Elton John and footballer Ashley Cole over “gay orgy” allegations have contributed to a two fold increase in defamation cases over the last year.
The number of reported defamation cases involving claims by celebrities against newspapers has more than doubled in the last year, a legal information service revealed today.
According to the figures drawn from Sweet Maxwell’s Lawtel Westlaw UK services, there were 20 celebrity versus newspapers court cases reported in the year to the end of May 2006, compared to just 9 in the previous 12 months, many involving gay celebrities or related issues.
Last February, Sir Elton accepted an undisclosed sum and an apology from the Sunday Times over an article which described him as “rude.”
He took offence at an article titled “Rock royals get too grand” which described his AIDS Foundation Summer Ball.
Within the article, the Sunday Times reporter claimed that Sir Elton acted in “a self-important, arrogant and rude manner.” The story said the singer had issued a “bizarre and absurd edict to guests at his annual charity fundraising White Tie and Tiara summer ball not to address him unless spoken to”.
Hanna Basha, representing Sir Elton, said the article had caused her client embarrassment and distress particularly as he feared it may damage his fundraising efforts.
Ms Basha said that the Times Newspapers Ltd, who publish the Sunday Times, accept that the allegations made were untrue, that they agreed to print an apology and pay damages to Sir Elton’s AIDs Foundation.
Alastair Brettt, representing the Times Newspapers said: “As soon as the defendant found out the story was untrue — it had been picked up from another newspaper — it immediately apologised to Sir Elton and it is happy to repeat that apology.”
More recently, England and Arsenal player Ashley Cole received an apology and damages from The News of the World and the Sun following a series of newspaper articles that wrongly claimed him to have been involved in a gay orgy.
The tabloids published a series of articles between the 12th and 19th of February 2006 accompanied with pixelated photographs of Mr Cole and the radio DJ Masterstepz (Ian Thompson) although neither party were named.
The following week, PinkNews.co.uk published an unedited version of the photographs that confirmed that the newspapers were alleging that Mr Cole and Mr Thompson were the parties involved in the alleged orgy.
Following the publication of the photographs on PinkNews.co.uk, Mr Cole and Mr Thompson began legal action against the News of the World and the Sun but not against PinkNews.co.uk.
Last week George Michael threatened to sue the News of the World after it printed pictures claiming to show him cruising on Hampstead Heath.
Westlaw UK Lawtel have an archive of over 250,000 law reports and transcripts online. In total, there were 74 reported defamation cases between May 2005 and May 2006, against 66 in the same period the year before.
Gideon Benaim, Partner at media law specialists Schillings says that one reason for the dramatic increase could be the growing number of foreign-based celebrities such as Hollywood stars choosing to sue in the English courts in the last couple of years.
He said: “It is easier for US-based celebrities to sue for defamation in the English courts than in their own country, as our libel laws are much more favourable to claimants. For instance, in the UK you do not have to prove malice, as you do in America. Also, the right to freedom of expression is enshrined in the US constitution under the First Amendment, whereas here the right is more evenly balanced with the individual’s right to their reputation. As Hollywood stars see others successfully taking this approach to protect their reputations, more are following suit.”
For example, in 2003 when rumours were reported worldwide of an affair between Nicole Kidman and her Cold Mountain co-star Jude Law, Kidman successfully sued the Sun and the Daily Mail in the English courts. American actress Kate Hudson has just won her High Court libel action against the UK Enquirer, the British edition of America’s National Enquirer magazine, over a story about her weight.
Gideon Benaim says that, in general, more people are now suing newspapers because newspapers are publishing more details about celebrities’ lives and actions than ever before. “There is so much competition among the British press to get a celebrity scoop these days. For the majority of famous people, the old adage that all publicity is good publicity is simply not true: they cannot afford to have their reputations tarnished since it could materially damage their careers and cause problems in their personal lives.”
Korieh Duodu, a barrister at David Price Solicitors Advocates said: “It might be tempting to interpret the jump in the number of reported celebrity cases as a sign of newspapers’ increasing bravery in defending these kinds of claims in the courts. However, in fact the reverse is more likely to be true.”
He said: “Since there have been so many cases in which celebrities have successfully sued the press in the recent past, it may well be that newspapers’ tactics are now more cautious when a libel case is launched. Instances of newspapers seeking to head off a costly and protracted full court hearing, while limiting the potential damage to their reputation that an adverse judgment might incur, by making an “offer of amends”, appear to be on the increase.”
Mr Duodu says that because an offer of amends is not necessarily a finding by the courts that published allegations are false, and since apologies are often not prominently published, claimants often also seek a statement in open court about the case, including details about any apology and compensation – thereby pushing up the number of reported cases.
An offer of amends allows a defendant to apologise and offer compensation without necessarily having to admit full liability. Defendants who have made an early offer of amends can be given discounts of up to 50% on compensation payments by the High Court if the parties cannot agree the level. Legal costs are also likely to be far less than for a fully contested case.
Mr Duodu added that newspapers may be less inclined to fight claims where celebrities are concerned as the Reynolds defence is unlikely to apply. The Reynolds/ “qualified privilege” defence means that the media may not have to prove the truth of the allegation in order to successfully defend a claim, if an allegation is made in the public interest and the journalist or publication has acted responsibly and ethically in relation to publication.
“Cases brought by celebrities, for example involving drink or drug abuse, rarely qualify for public interest protection under Reynolds because the subject matter, whilst of interest to readers, is not a matter of legitimate public concern,” he said. “The result is that if there is any concern about being able to prove the truth of the allegations, the newspaper is more likely to settle.”