You’ll remember last year the Torygraph got a lot of mileage out of a CD containing MP’s claims for DFS sofas and pizza wheels. The Torygraph is owned by the Barclay brothers, who live in a mansion in the tax exile of Sark, which they appear to treat as a private fiefdom.
Now the Barclays are suing Private Eye for a parody Telegraph front page in which they point out the inconsistency of the Telegraph‘s expenses grandstanding and periodic displays of morality when it is owned by a couple of tax-dodging creeps who bought the paper from convicted fraudster Conrad Black.
On the island of Sark, where the Barclays are widely loathed, the postmistress enjoyed [the parody] so much that she pinned up the page on her noticeboard – and promptly received a letter from the twins’ London solicitors, Messrs Withers, demanding that she remove it and display instead a statement that the Barclays ‘are not tax dodgers. They have been non-resident and non-domiciled from the UK for over 20 years but have nevertheless complied with their UK tax obligations and paid personal tax during those years… They do not exercise huge influence over Telegraph readers, as stated in the article. They did not acquire the Telegraph from Lord Conrad Black… The Telegraph was put up for sale to the highest bidder by its owners Hollinger Inc’s bankers.’
The postmistress, understandably alarmed, took down the Eye page – though copies have since been stuck up on trees and other vantage points around the island, to the fury of the Barclays’ local propaganda-sheet, Sark News. ‘The page in question,’ it fulminates, ‘although intended to be funny, is instead deeply offensive.’
With no intended irony, the same issue of Sark News denounces the (anti-Barclay) ruling committees of Sark as ‘part of a culture that exerts power by bullying people. There are far too many intimidating and threatening letters… This culture of bullying has to stop.’
They should know! Having intimidated the postmistress, Withers asked the Eye to withdraw our ‘false and seriously defamatory allegation’ and publish the letter they had asked the Post Office to display. Lord Gnome’s lawyers have now sent Withers the following riposte. Though not quite as succinct as the reply in Arkell v. Pressdram, it conveys essentially the same message:
We act for the publishers of Private Eye and we write with reference to your letter of Friday last, 25 June, marked ‘URGENT’, sent after close of business that day. The edition of Private Eye which contains the material that is the subject of your letter went on sale on 8 June ie some three weeks ago; the time it has taken you and your client to write your letter is quite inconsistent with there being any urgency at all in the matter; your avowal of urgency appears to be a pointless device designed to inflate artificially the supposed importance of the matter.
In any case the contents of your letter are really quite astonishing. Is it the case that, between you and your clients, you have all failed to realise that the ‘article’ on page 21 of Private Eye of which you complain is a spoof article?
Even to those unfamiliar with Private Eye there are a number of features of the article, on the page on which it appears, and on those surrounding it, that would suggest to such readers that the articles and material on these pages are not genuine.
For example (page 20) David Cameron and Nick Clegg are of course prime minister and deputy prime minister, but it is not credible that any reader would be so unworldly, or gullible, to think that they also were headmaster and deputy headmaster of an educational institution called ‘The New Coalition Academy’ (formerly Brown’s Comprehensive) and had chosen the pages of Private Eye as the way to update those interested in the Academy’s activities. Likewise, would any reader studying the ‘Disillusion Honours List’ on page 22 believe that John Prescott had been ennobled for ‘services to his secretary’, or Michael Howard for ‘services to the Transylvanian Community and the Involuntary Blood Transfusion Authority’?
As to the article itself, appearing in the midst of all the other obviously spoof material, is it capable of being anything else? Plainly not. It is a piece written in jest as a ‘take-off’ of a series of articles about the parliamentary expenses scandal which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, which, as is well known, is owned by your clients. It is obviously not a reproduction of an article that appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
The law of libel recognises that statements made in jest are not actionable. Furthermore, in deciding what meaning is to be given to the words in question, it is well established that the hypothetical reader is taken to be representative of those who would read the publication in question. The overall position (including the latter point) was most recently summarised by the Master of the Rolls in Jeynes v News Magazine (2008) in a passage which Tugendhat J cited and relied on only a few days ago in Thornton v Telegraph Media Group (16 June 2010) arising out of allegedly defamatory material published in the Daily Telegraph, ie your clients’ publication.
Even more so than the new reader, the notional hypothetical reader of Private Eye will know that the middle of the magazine consists of spoof articles, and other similar material, because it always does. They are clearly not meant to be taken as being factual and no reader would do so.
In those circumstances, we would suggest that you reconsider whether this is a claim that your clients wish to maintain.
Naturally our client denies any liability. The claim for libel is without substance or merit. In its long history Private Eye has never had a libel claim over the spoof material published on these pages.
Your letter raises issues about the supposed factual accuracy of the article. Given its nature, ie that it is a spoof, it would be inappropriate, and disproportionate, to address these issues in any detail and we therefore do not do so but reserve the right to do so, as may be appropriate, in due course. We however make it clear that we do not accept all that is said by you; for example it is evident from highly critical comments of Vice Chancellor Strine, the judge in the court proceedings in Delaware in 2004, with which your clients are familiar as they were involved in them, that your clients did have very extensive dealings with Conrad Black with a view to buying the Daily Telegraph.
Your clients must be in no doubt about the editor’s position in this matter; he has published a (clearly) spoof piece, following articles that have been appearing for some two years in your clients’ newspaper about the finances of leading public figures. It does not justify the intervention of lawyers and he will defend any claim about it that your clients may make.
Good for Private Eye.