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Elton John loses landmark irony libel case

A spoof newspaper diary which claimed that Elton John's fundraising efforts were principally designed to give him a chance to meet other celebrities and engage in self-promotion was not libellous, the High Court has ruled.17 Dec 2008

The High Court has defended the right of The Guardian newspaper to publish the spoof diary, and has said that a reasonable reader would not take the contents of a humorous piece in the magazine as being fact.

The ruling backs the right of newspapers to use humour and irony to lampoon or criticise public figures.

In July this year The Guardian's magazine carried one of a regular series of spoof diaries, this time supposedly written by Elton John but bylined 'as seen by Marina Hyde'. Hyde is a Guardian journalist.

In that piece Hyde described the organising of a party John throws every year, which he calls the White Tie and Tiara Ball. The party is usually attended by many famous people and is often extensively covered in glowing terms by the entertainment press.

"Naturally, everyone could afford just to hand over the money if they gave that much of a toss about Aids research – as could the sponsors," said Hyde's piece. "But we like to give guests a preposterously lavish evening, because they're the kind of people who wouldn't turn up for anything less."

"They fork out small fortunes for new dresses and so on, the sponsors blow hundreds of thousands on creating what convention demands we call a 'magical world', and everyone wears immensely smug 'My diamonds are by Chopard' grins in the newspapers and OK. Once we've subtracted all these costs, the leftovers go to my foundation. I call this care-o-nomics," it said.

John claimed that article suggested that he misled party attendees and others about where raised money goes.

"The words complained of meant and were understood to mean that the commitment of [John] to the stated aims and objectives of [the Elton John Aids Foundation (EJAF)] is so insincere that he dishonestly or falsely claims that all the money raised by the White Tie & Tiara Ball goes to EJAF whereas the true position is that once the costs of the Ball have been covered only the small proportion of the money raised by the Ball which is left over is available for EJAF to distribute to good causes," said John's claim.

The Guardian said that its words did not mean that John spent on the party money that he claimed was going to the charity, only that all the money involved in the staging of the event should go to the charity.

"If and insofar as the words complained of bore the meaning that [John's] conduct in arranging a lavish celebrity ball was distasteful and wasteful, because all of the money spent on the ball should have been given to EJAF, they were fair comment on a matter of public interest," said The Guardian's case. "The matter of public interest was [John's] method of fundraising for his charity."

The Guardian argued that the words in the article should not be read as being facts, but as being comment on the way that John conducted activities related to fundraising.

Mr Justice Tugendhat said that the fact that the article appeared in the Weekend section of the paper, a magazine, and not the news section was relevant to how the words would be read.

"While different types of speech can appear in any of these sections, the designation of the section assists in understanding the extent to which particular speech is to be understood as factual or not. Weekend is not the news section of the paper," he said.

"The words complained of are obviously words written by the journalist, who has attributed them to [John] as a literary device," said the ruling. "The attribution is literally false, but no reasonable reader could be misled by it."

Mr Justice Tugendhat said that if the serious allegation that John used funds raised to pay party costs and not cure Aids was correct a reader would not expect to see that reported humorously in the Weekend section of the paper.

"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," he said in the ruling.

John has taken many defamation cases to the courts, and has been successful against some of the country's biggest newspapers. In 2006 The Sunday Times claimed he had acted in a "self-important, arrogant and rude manner" at his summer ball. The same year The Daily Mail paid out £100,000 over a story that he had told guests not to talk to him unless he approached him at his White Tie and Tiara Ball.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger welcomed the decision. "We're sorry that Elton John lost his sense of humour over this article," he said. "The judge – and, we suspect all readers – saw the article for what it was: a piece of mild satire. Newspapers have published satire since the 17th century in this country. The judgment is an important recognition of the right to poke the occasional bit of fun."

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