Theatre critic cleared in suicide bomber opera libel case

An Evening Standard theatre critic who did not like British composer Keith Burstein’s opera about suicide bombers, calling the tone ‘depressingly anti-American’and finding the notion that there was anything heroic about the bombers ‘a grievous insult’was entitled to give her honest opinion, London’s Court of Appeal ruled today.

In a milestone ruling which strengthens the legal position of newspaper reviewers and critics, Lord Justice Keene, sitting with Lord Justice Waller and Lord Justice Dyson, backed their rights to give ‘fair comment’in their reviews.

The judges unanimously found that Associated Newspapers’ defence of fair comment, in relation to Veronica Lee’s review, defeated Burstein’s libel claim.

Finding in favour of Associated without the need for a full trial before a jury, Lord Justice Keene said that the court was ‘firmly of the view that only one answer is available to any reasonable jury and that the defence of fair comment must succeed”.

Miss Lee’s review of the opera ‘Manifest Destiny’appeared in the Evening Standard in August 2005 .

The composer took exception to the last passage in which she wrote: ‘ I found the tone depressingly anti-American, and the idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is , frankly, a grievous insult.”

Burstein claimed in his libel action that this bore the meaning that he was ‘ a sympathiser with terrorist causes and actively promotes such belief in his artistic work’and that he ‘applauds the action of suicide bombers and raises them to a level of heroism”.

However, the judges today ruled her critical review was ‘fair comment’and overturned a High Court ruling last October in which Mr Justice Eady refused to award summary judgment – judgment without the need for a fully contested court hearing – to the publishers without the need for a trial.

They also ordered the composer to pay back the £8,000 costs he was awarded by a High Court judge last October, and to pay the newspaper’s costs of the hearing and appeal, to be assessed.

Lord Justice Keene said: ‘I am firmly of the view that the words complained of in the present case, when seen in context, carry an unmistakable badge of comment.

‘I conclude therefore that the words are plainly comment and that no reasonable jury could treat them as a statement of fact.”

He said he had watched the opera on DVD, and read the libretto.

“It is plainly anti-American, as the review states,’he said.

“I say that not to approve or disapprove of such an approach but merely to state a fact, at least in so far as American policy towards the Middle East is concerned.

‘The opera is undoubtedly dealng with controversial issues, and it could be expected to arouse different responses, including quite vehement ones, in those who saw and heard it.”

“It may be that there is a degree of over-simplification in what is quite a short review but there is certainly adequate material in the opera for a critic to form an honest view of the kind expressed by Miss Lee and about which complaint is now made.”

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