Not such an innocent girl -McManus v Victoria Beckham

Victoria Beckham’s recent statement in open court, to extricate herself from a costly claim for slander, is a warning to celebrities that the courts may regard repetition of their comments by the press as a foreseeable event for which they are liable.

The case of McManus v Victoria Beckham arose out of comments made by the former Spice Girl on a trip to the Bluewater shopping centre in March 2001. During her visit she noticed an autograph of her husband in the claimants’ memorabilia store. Before she left Mrs Beckham told three customers that the autograph was a fake, and her comments subsequently received widespread press coverage.

In the case of libel, which is defamation in a permanent, usually written form, the law presumes that publication gives rise to damage. By way of contrast however, slander, which is defamation in a transient, usually spoken form, is generally only actionable if the claimant has suffered actual damage. Accordingly, it would not always be possible to bring a claim for damages for the slander for which Mrs Beckham was responsible.

However, the McManuses claimed that they were entitled to rely on the subsequent press coverage in proving that they had suffered substantial lost turnover.

The judge at first instance, Judge Previte QC, rejected this claim. He held that the newspaper articles and websites referred to did not repeat Mrs Beckham’s words, and that a claim for damages arising out of those publications could not therefore succeed.

Moreover, he was of the view that the publication of the articles was an act of an independent third party for which the defendant could not be held liable, and that republication in newspapers was not a natural and probable, or foreseeable, consequence of her speaking the words complained of.

The Court of Appeal however took up the comments of Lord Justice Bingham in the Nineties case of Slipper v BBC, in which he remarked that: “Defamatory statements are objectionable not least because of their propensity to percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs.” In the case of Mrs Beckham’s defamatory statements, they had a propensity to leap on to the pages of mainstream newspapers, and she should have been aware of this.

The Appeal Judges disagreed with Judge Previte’s findings, and held that although the slander was not repeated verbatim in any of the newspaper articles referred to, even a partial publication of the original “sting” could cause damage.

The claimants were entitled to an opportunity at trial to prove that Mrs Beckham was someone who in fact courted publicity and who could foresee that what she said was likely to be widely reported. If that could be proved, then Mrs Beckham could be held responsible for the damage that her slander had caused.

The case will in fact not now reach trial, following Mrs Beckham’s apology in the High Court, her agreement to pay damages of £55,000, plus legal costs estimated at more than £100,000, as well as the donation of a selection of her husband’s official merchandise to the claimants’ shop.

Celebrities may now be advised that their entourage when out on shopping sprees should consist of an extra member: a defamation lawyer.

James Damon is a lawyer in the media and entertainment group at Charles Russell

By James Damon

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