Evening Standard 'delighted' at freedom of speech ruling

The right of journalists to file damning reviews has been upheld by the Appeal Court following a year-long legal fight by the Evening Standard over a theatre review.

Now composer Keith Burstein has been left with a costs bill likely to total £80,000 after disputing the review by Veronica Lee of his opera Manifest Destiny performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2005.

Standard lawyer Cathryn Smith from Foot Anstey said: ‘If this had gone the other way we would have all been on the back foot and it would have been extraordinarily difficult for journalists to review almost anything.”

The original review of the opera about suicide bombers was condemned by Lee as ‘a trite affair”, ‘horribly leaden and unmusical”, ‘depressingly anti-American’and a ‘grievous insult”.

Burstein claimed that the review gave the impression that he was a ‘sympathiser with terrorist causes’and ‘applauds the action of suicide bombers”.

A year ago, Mr Justice Eady ruled that there was enough of a case for it to go before a jury. But the Standard appealed this arguing that the case should be struck out at the summary stage.

Now the Appeal Court has issued a judgment throwing the case out and firmly setting down the parameters under which journalists can express their honestly held opinions.

In assessing whether Lee’s comments were ‘fair”, Lord Justice Waller said: ‘That does not require the court to ask whether it was a reasonable opinion or one which a reasonable person could hold. It may be an exaggerated opinion or a prejudiced one, so long as it can be honestly held.”

After watching the opera himself, Waller said: ‘It is plainly anti-American… it deals with matters upon which strong opinions could be legitimately held.”

Smith said: ‘It seemed to me that Mr Burstein wanted to have his freedom of speech in staging his opera, but didn’t want the Evening Standard to have their freedom of speech in commenting upon it. This judgment sets out well the basics of the fair comment libel defence.”

Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley said: ‘This judgment is of major significance. We believed it was essential to take this to the highest legal appeal court as it is fundamental to freedom of speech for critics to write without fear of upsetting authors or producers. We are delighted with the judgment.”

Lawyer Niri Shan from Taylor Wessing said: ‘This is a very good decision for the right of journalists to hold and voice their opinions, as long as those opinions are honestly held and based on true facts.”

Shan said that publishers are often keen to get summary rulings from judges on fair comment cases because this is a complex defence which juries can find difficult to understand.

Meanwhile, The Irish News is going to the appeal court in Belfast this autumn to dispute a High Court judgment in February which cost it £25,000 when a jury ruled that a restaurant review was defamatory. The paper has engaged libel QC Lord Leicester to pursue the case.

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