A leading Belfast newspaper launched a legal bid today to overturn a £25,000 libel damages award for a scathing restaurant review it carried.
The Irish News was ordered to pay out to Ciarnan Convery, owner of the Goodfellas eatery, after a jury found it was guilty of defamation.
With the case being seen as a potential watershed for press freedom, lawyers for the paper urged the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal to quash the verdict.
Lord Lester QC insisted the review had been written in good faith and without malice.
As he opened a hearing expected to run for two days, the barrister claimed issues of great public importance dealing with the right to freedom of expression were at stake.
He said: “Although it was about a review by a food critic it could as well have been a review written by a theatre or film critic.”
Reviewing Goodfellas for the Irish News in August 2000, Caroline Workman, a former editor of the Bridgestone restaurant guide, criticised the quality of food and drink, the staff and smoky atmosphere at the premises on Kennedy Way, west Belfast.
She said her overall impression was one of huge disappointment and awarded a rating of one mark out of five.
According to Mr Convery, a former taxi driver who opened the restaurant in 1991, the review was a hatchet job.
His lawyers claimed it was defamatory, damaging and hurtful, and a High Court jury agreed unanimously with this assessment following a trial last February. The Irish News was ordered to pay damages and Mr Convery’s legal costs.
The newspaper’s editor Noel Doran and managing director Dominic Fitzpatrick were in court as the hearing began.
They heard Lord Lester tell the three appeal judges headed by Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Kerr that the case involved an experienced food critic of integrity giving her opinion about the quality of food and drink, service and ambience.
He told the court: “It (the review) did not purport to be a factual report by a food scientist. It was a personal description by a food critic explaining why she formed a poor opinion of the restaurant based on her experience as a customer on the evening in question.”
He claimed the main reason for the seven year gap between publication of the article and the libel hearing was because Mr Convery had not actively pursued it. The trial was held instead at the initiative of the Irish News, he said.
Lord Lester, who stressed that Ms Workman had not known Mr Convery, said the Irish News’ defence had been based on fair comment, public interest and justification.
He argued that the review, carried within the newspaper’s feature section, was an opinion piece distinguishable from any factual articles