High Court rules that book review claim is “not serious enough” to justify a libel action

Mr. Justice Tugendhat sitting in the High Court has ruled that a claim brought in respect of a book review was not serious enough to justify a libel action, although another part of  the publication may yet form the basis of a case. The matter centres on Lynn Barber’s review of a book in the Daily Telegraph which was written by author Sarah Thornton. Ms. Barber reviewed Dr. Thornton’s book entitled “Seven Days in the Art World” which looked at the art world in London in 2007.  The book was comprised of seven “fly on the wall” stories. Ms. Barber said that “Sarah Thornton is a decorative Canadian with A BA in art history and a PhD in sociology and seemingly limitless capacity to write pompous nonsense”. “She describes her book as a piece of ‘ethnographic research’, which she defines as a ‘genre of writing with roots in anthropology that aims to generate holistic descriptions of social and cultural worlds’.  She also claims that she practices ‘reflexive ethnography’ which means that her interviewees have the right to read what she says about them and alter it.  In journalism we call this ‘copy approval’ and disapprove.” Dr. Thornton’s legal team claimed that Ms. Barber’s comments were an “attack on Dr. Thornton’s integrity as a professional writer.” The Daily Telegraph asked the High Court to rule that the words were not defamation because they did not damage Dr. Thornton seriously enough. In agreeing with the submissions made by the Daily Telegraph, Mr Justice Tugenhadt said that “It is a feature of this case that Dr. Thornton appears to share the view, expressed in the first paragraph of the words complained of, that giving copy approval is something to be disapproved of.  But that does not take the case any further towards making this a libel.  The fact that the two parties to an action may both be members of a section of society holding particular views does not relieve the court from the obligation to try the case by the standards of members of society generally”. “In the present case there is no suggestion that the need to apply the standards of members of society generally can be satisfied by putting forward a meaning such as disloyalty or hypocrisy.  If read by itself, the first paragraph containing the copy approval allegation is not capable of being a personal libel.  It is not capable of meaning that Dr. Thornton had done anything which in ordinary language could be highly reprehensible, or reprehensible at all, or bearing any defamatory meaning of Dr. Thornton on a personal basis” The court made reference to previous cases containing sanitation and dentists and said that it was not fair to compare this case with them as in those cases the consequences of the truth or falsehood of the statements on the individuals could have dire effects. The judge said that “I remain unable to see how [those cases] can be translated to the profession of writing, where professionals are free to write to different standards for different readerships.  A journalist is free to make a living in the world of public relations”.  Absent a pleaded meaning such as hypocrisy, or a true innuendo, neither of which are pleaded in this case, I am unable to see how it can be defamatory of Dr. Thornton to allege that she did in apply in her book the standards of journalists relating to copy approval.  Or if it might otherwise be, then it does not overcome the required threshold of seriousness.” The Court said that Ms. Barber’s assertion in the book review that Dr. Thornton misleadingly claimed to have interviewed her could be the subject of an ongoing libel action.

Published June 22, 2010

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