Times journalist loses “Tartan bollocks” libel bid versus Herald

A journalist who was lampooned in a newspaper's diary column as a contender for the "Tartan Bollocks Award" lost a bid to sue for defamation when a judge held that it was clear that the article was intended as entertainment and banter.

Angus Macleod, Scottish political editor of The Times, sued publisher Newsquest Ltd over an item which appeared in the column Alan Taylor's Diary in the Sunday Herald on December 18, 2005.

The column contained a number of items, on of which concerned a ceremony to hand out "the prestigious Tartan Bollocks Award, which is given to the Holyrood hack who has made the biggest gaffe of the year".

It included a section which read: "Angus Macleod of the Times who, like Alexander Graham Bell, is justly renowned for his powers of invention, came close with his confident prediction that Jim Wallace would still be leading the LibDems in 2007. Mr Wallace repaid the faith shown in him by promptly announcing his retirement."

Lord Macphail, sitting in the Court of Session, dismissed the action, agreeing with the publisher's submission that the words did not bear the meaning claimed by Mr Macleod, who said the article gave the reader the false impression that he enjoyed "a just renown for his powers of invention", that he was "a disreputable journalist who made stories up rather than investigate them", that he was not a fit and proper person to be employed by The Times or broadcast for the BBC and other broadcasters.

The reader would also have concluded that he invented a conversation with Jim Wallace, he claimed.

Lord Macphail said the first question he had to answer was whether the words published could bear the meanings claimed.

The piece was not on a news page, but in the diary, he said, adding: "In an earlier item the reader is informed that one of the Scottish Ministers had gone missing in the Amazonian rainforest and inter alia had been reading the Oor Wullie annual until she was found by anthropologists.

"In another, a statement by the First Minister is compared to an announcement by Julius Caesar. In a third, Lord Birt is said to have changed his name to Lord Berk, and to have gone into hospital 'to try and have his charisma by-pass op reversed'."

The item about which Mr Macleod was suing said there was intense competition for the award for "the Holyrood hack who has made the biggest gaffe of the year".

Lord Macphail said: "The ceremony is said to have been 'star-studless', a neologism intended to convey that it was not 'star-studded'. It is also said to have taken place 'in an Edinburgh shebeen', a word defined by counsel as 'an illegal drinking den in which alcohol on which duty has not been paid is served'.

"Reference is then made to 'the Hootsmon's peedie political editor', which the hypothetical reasonable reader would understand as a reference to the political editor of The Scotsman and as describing him as being small in stature. That journalist is said to have written an old story about 'Lord Forsyth of Blessed Memory', which the same reader would understand as a reference to Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.

"Next comes the material concerning the pursuer (Mr Macleod). It is followed by a paragraph mentioning a 'Gnat MSP', meaning a Scottish Nationalist MSP, and by a final paragraph referring to 'the embalmed readership of The Sunday Post' and 'David McLutchie-at-Straws', a reference to Mr David McLetchie MSP.

"In my opinion no ordinary reasonable reader would have regarded any of these items as providing reliable factual information. It would have been clear to him or her that the 'Diary' was not concerned to convey hard news or serious comment such as no doubt appeared elsewhere in the paper.

"He or she would not have believed the story about the missing Minister, or taken seriously the comparison of the utterances of Julius Caesar and the First Minister, or accepted that Lord Birt had changed his name to Lord Berk and had been in hospital.

"In the item in which the pursuer is mentioned, the same reader would not have believed that journalists had competed for the distinction of having made 'the biggest gaffe of the year'. The words 'star-studless', 'shebeen', 'Hootsmon', 'peedie', 'Gnat' and 'embalmed', and the names 'Lord Forsyth of Blessed Memory' and 'David McClutchie-at-Straws' would have conveyed to that reader that this item, like the others, had been written for his or her entertainment in a cheerful, irreverent and playful spirit, and contained elements of fantasy."

Lord Macphail said he could not accept that an ordinary reasonable reader would have attached the meaning claimed by Mr Macleod to the words over which he was suing.

"In my view it would have been clear to the ordinary reasonable reader that the pursuer, like the other three journalists mentioned, was being chaffed or teased by the diarist in a good-humoured or bantering manner for having written a story which could be described as a 'gaffe': in the first case the story was an old story, and in the others, including the pursuer's, it was a prediction which had proved to be inaccurate," he said.

"I have had no difficulty in being satisfied that the reader would not have regarded the passage as conveying any of the very serious meanings pleaded by the pursuer."

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