Judge rules Observer's Keays piece was comment

By Roger Pearson

The High Court has paved the way for Guardian Newspapers to mount a “fair comment” defence to a libel action brought against The Observer by Sara Keays, the mother of former Tory minister Cecil Parkinson’s love-child.

When Flora Keays, the daughter of Keays and Parkinson, turned 18, The Observer carried a comment piece headed “The mother of all women scorned”, which branded Sara Keays as “a preposterous piece of work” and quoted Edwina Currie as having once described her as “a right cow”.

Sara Keays launched a libel action, complaining that the piece indicated that she had cynically exploited her handicapped daughter, that she lied when she claimed justification for the media publicity after Flora’s 18th birthday and that she had given a “kiss-and-tell” story to The Times in a bid to exact revenge on Parkinson.

However, Mr Justice Eady said all he was being asked to decide was whether the piece was comment.

Ruling that it was, he said: “The article is in pungent and offensive terms, but it is recognised that hard-hitting comments may be made on matters of public interest without the author being hobbled by the constraints of conventional good manners.”

He said for the purpose of deciding whether it could be categorised as comment, he did not have to decide whether it was fair or written maliciously. The question was whether the article by Carol Sarler “carried an unmistakable badge of comment”.

“Here, not only was the article in the Comment section of the newspaper, but Miss Sarler was obviously making her observations on the topical subject of the media publicity of the previous week,” he said. “She was not asserting any of her inferences as new and independent fact. Any reader would be aware this was so.”

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