Comics get legal protection

...thanks to Elton John

Comedians have been granted new legal protection from the butt of their jokes, after Sir Elton John lost a high-profile libel case.

A high court judge ruled yesterday that ‘irony’ and ‘teasing’ do not amount to defamation, protecting satirists who make jokes that are clearly not meant to be taken seriously.

The singer had sued The Guardian over a spoof ‘diary of Sir Elton John’, which he claimed libelled him by casting doubt on the his motives for hosting the annual White Tie and Tiara ball, which raises millions of pounds for Aids charities.

Writing as Sir Elton, Marina Hyde said: ‘Naturally, everyone could afford just to hand over the money if they gave that much of a toss about Aids research - as could the sponsors. But we like to give guests a preposterously lavish evening because they're the kind of people who wouldn't turn up for anything less.’

However, the newspaper successfully argued that the article had to be taken in context, and that no reasonable reader would have believed that the words should be taken at face value.

Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled: ‘The transparently false attribution is irony… The attribution is literally false but no reasonable reader could be misled by it.’

Sir Elton’s lawyers had also complained that the article suggested that only a small proportion of the proceeds went to charity when, in fact, sponsors paid all the costs so all the guests’ donations went to good causes.

The judge ruled that ‘a reasonable reader would expect so serious an allegation to be made without humour, and explicitly’ rather than in a tongue-in-cheek column.

Media law expert Mark Stephens said: ‘What Tugendhat has done is move us closer to the US system where you can't get damages for satire and humour, except in the most exceptional cases.’

And Guardian Alan Rusbridger added: ‘We're sorry that Elton John lost his sense of humour over this article. The judgment is an important recognition of the right to poke the occasional bit of fun.’

Sir Elton’s legal team indicated that he might seek leave to appeal.

Published: 13 Dec 2008

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