Guardian v Elton John libel judgment is victory for irony

The right of journalists to use irony to lampoon celebrities has been upheld after a libel judgment in favour of the Guardian against Sir Elton John.

It is a rare victory for the press against the popstar who has sued newspapers on numerous occasions and previously won one of the highest ever libel payouts against The Sun.

He sued over a 5 July Guardian story penned by Marina Hyde which purported to be his diary.

The piece stated 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 popstar argued that his annual White Tie and Tiara Ball had so far raised more than £38m for charity.

He claimed that the Guardian piece 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 Elton John Aaids Foundation to distribute to good causes and’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 and the good causes it supports”.

He also sued for aggravated damages claiming that Hyde ‘knew the words complained of were false”.

In his judgment Mr Justice Tugendhat noted that context was important and that the piece appeared in the Weekend section of the paper, rather than in news.

Noting that the story appeared under the heading “A peek at the Diary of Sir Elton John”, he said ‘no reasonable reader could understand them as being written by the claimant”.

Sir Elton admitted that the piece was ‘an attempt at humour’but said it was also ‘a snide attack”.

But Mr Justice Tugendhat said the story ‘could not be understood by a reasonable reader of The Guardian Weekend section as containing the serious allegation’that Sir Elton claimed.

Mr Justice Tugendhat said: ‘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.”

Elton John’s greatest (libel) hits:

  • December 1988: The Sun reached an out-of-court settlement with him, believed to be worth £1 million, over a series of stories that included false allegations that the singer had been involved with rent boys and had ordered the removal of his guard dogs’ larynxes.
  • 1993: He won £300,000 in damages from the Sunday Mirror over false claims that he was suffering from bulimia. This was cut to £75,000 on appeal.
  • May 2006: The Daily Mail agreed to pay him £100,000 in libel damages over false claims that he had issued an edict to guests invited to his White Tie and Tiara charity ball telling them not to speak to him unless he approached them.
  • February 2006: He accepted undisclosed libel damages from the Sunday Times after it alleged that he had acted “in a self-important, arrogant and rude manner” at his Aids Foundation’s summer ball.

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