Hellish kitchen - restaurant libel case puts press freedom to the test

As previously commented upon by Mediabeak, The Irish News is heading to the Court of Appeal in Belfast this week to contest a £25,000 libel ruling it was hit with last year over a review its restuarant critic Caroline Workman had provided back in 2000. Reviews are normally seen a subjective criticism and part of the wider review landscape so last year's ruling that saw the Irish News fined for carrying a critical review of Goodfellas came as an unwelcome surprise for it and the wider media who understandably regard this as a damning blow to free speech. There is an established assumption that reviews are subjective and in publishing them, newspapers are presenting rather than condoning the views expressed in them. The question that arises is to what extent can such fee speech be immune from sanction?

Defamation is predicated upon the publication of statements that damage the reputation of an individual, organisation or business, in this case a restaurant. One defence is to prove that the statement is true.

This poses problems when it comes to reviews, be they of restaurants, or anything else for that matter. The whole nature of a review is subjective, presenting the opinion of the reviewer, and hence there is no true of false.

So if the Belfast Appeal Court fails to allow the appeal then this will be bad news for the press and the ability to offer 'critique' over life's gastronomic, literary and artiscitc offerings. While comment shouldn't be allowed to irresponsibly ruin commercial enterprise of a gastronomic or artistic nature, it does have a place to assess the quality of these enterprises in the context of the public they serve. So if you can't stand the heat get out of the proverbial kitchen - one doesn't see the likes of Gordon Ramsay get all precious over a review - instead he growls in his various kitchens and ensures the product is right and the review will (in most cases) take care of itself.

Check back with Mediabeak for the latest from the appeal hearing after it gets underway on Wednesday.

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