Ecclestone libel action against Telegraph dismissed

Two rare things happened in the High Court today - a newspaper won (or didn't lose) a libel action AND Schillings lost one.

The case
Petra Ecclestone, daughter of Formula 1 supremo Bernie, had brought a libel action against The Telegraph's diary column Mandrake, suggesting it had wrongly attributed a quote to her and that the quote was libellous.

What she was alleged to have said in response to being asked about using leather in her fashion range and vegetarianism was that she "did not have much time for" people like well-known vegetarians such as the McCartneys or Annie Lennox.

Her legal team at Schillings argued that the statement was defamatory on the basis that it portrayed Ecclestone as being disrespectful of the McCartneys and Lennox.

The issue
For something to be libellous the claimant has to show that what was published had, or was capable of having a defamatory meaning. So did the phrase 'not having much time for' someone amount to such a public display of indifference or disrespect as to be capable of being defamatory of the person who was alleged to have said it? And, did the publication of that comment as attributed to Ecclestone actually cause people to think less of her to the extent it damaged her reputation?

The further issue of whether she had actually said that she didn't have much time for these ueber-vegetarians is relevant only insofar as the comment could be shown to be defamatory - i.e. if what' been printed isn't capable of having a defamatory meaning and effect then its immaterial to the defamation claim as it will have failed anyway.

The decision
This was a preliminary hearing to decide whether the case should be allowed to proceed to full trial. Mrs Justice Sharp was not convinced, indeed she said she was 'entirely unpersuaded' that Telegraph readers would have been outraged by the comment. She concluded that the reasonable reader would not think it any more than a generally used commment to convey that she was not particularly influenced by or subscribe to the schools of vegetarianism supported by the McCartneys or Lennox. SO there had not been publication of a statement that had or was capable of having a defamatory meaning such that it would be appropriate to proceed to trial.

Next was the contention that she had never said the words attributed to her = as Mrs Justice Sharp was swift to point out, falsity in relation to the quote was immaterial in these circumstances. Result = Press 1 : Schillings 0

Mediabeak thinks this was a long-shot libel action as it hinged on the strength, meaning and potentially defamatory effect that could be attributed to or flow from the phrase 'not having much time for' someone. The argument is further weakened by context in that - assuming the quote was not falsely attributed - saying she didn't have time for 'people like' the McCartneys or Lennox was merely describing her approach to vegetarianism as being less campaigning than others. Indeed the context of the interview related to her forthcoming fashion show and the use of leather so viewed at from this broader perspective, trying to pin a libel action on a throw away comment about vegetarianism was optimistic. If one looks at what celebrities fling at each other via the press on a daily basis, the phrase at the centre of this action seems decidedly mundane. Presumably the case was not on a CFA.

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