One woman’s meat …may well turn into her own poison! Indeed, such was the case for food expert and critic Caroline Workman, who, in 2000, chose to review west-Belfast restaurant Goodfellas, only to be served food she found hardly edible and to see the Irish News – the paper where the review appeared – charged with defamation by the restaurant owner.
Despite initial scepticism that the claim would actually land in court, the trial in fact took place in 2007, resulting in the defeat of the Irish News and the award of a whopping £25,000 damages to the restaurant owner. Early in 2008, the Irish News decided to appeal against the verdict and the latter was eventually overturned a few weeks later. The whole episode, however, stirred strong feelings among writers and journalists who clearly perceived the initial verdict as a threat to freedom of expression, suddenly suffering lack of adequate legal protection. For this event, English Pen joined the HRLA at the Art Workers Guild, in Bloomsbury, in the attempt to shed light on the meaning and implications of Caroline Workman’s eight-year long misadventure.
After a brief introduction by English Pen President and chair of the event Lisa Appignanesi, the evening was opened by Lord Anthony Lester QC, who defended the Irish News in court. He explained how the law on defamation has been designed for the purpose of maintaining the balance between two equally deserving rights whose nature poses them in continuous tension with each other: freedom of expression on one side and the right to reputation on the other. If defamation occurs, it means that someone’s public reputation has been (intentionally or accidentally) damaged. The defence of fair comment on matters of public interest lies at the heart of the law of defamation: as long as a review concerns an object of public interest and as long as it is fair, in the sense of being honest, clearly expressing the author’s opinions (as opposed to a factual article), the reviewer may be successfully defended under the principle of fair comment. One further criterion for defence consists in asking that opinions be justified (i.e. based on the truth) and not the result of arbitrary allegations (i.e. an honest person in the same circumstances would have arrived to the same conclusions).
As Lord Lester pointed out while considering the first trial, in proceedings for defamation the burden of proof rests substantially on the defendant. In Caroline Workman’s case, all elements for fair comment and justification seemed to be there – and that’s what makes the initial verdict so disconcerting from the legal point of view. She went to dinner, she was very specific, in her review, as to the reasons why she did not enjoy the food she had ordered, nor the service or the atmosphere, and ultimately wrote a review that she herself considers “unflattering”, yet honest … so what else was left for her to demonstrate? Or, what did she do wrong that led the jury in the first trial to decide that her review constituted libel? Apparently, not only were the facts outlined in her review considered as a source of libel by the jury, but subjective comments seem to have been interpreted as equally defamatory. In addition, it looks like the jury rejected her grounds for justification, considering them as mere allegations. On these bases, the Irish News decided to appeal and the first verdict was eventually overturned.
Following Lord Lester’s premise, Caroline Workman took the microphone. As she started to talk about her experience, the legal jargon left its place to a more familiar language. Suddenly the trial and its technicalities faded into the background. In front of the audience stood a woman who had spent eight years of her life with this thing hanging over her head. In the course of those eight years, nonetheless, she managed to accomplish many things from both a personal and a professional point of view. Coming to the review, she suggested that the restaurant owner had taken it “personally”. Then she spoke about the trial and about how she had been called a liar and a “vindictive food snob”. She went on describing the impact the trial has had on her writing and confessed to still be looking for something to write about that will make her happy.
Reflecting on whether she would write the review again was she given another chance, she is sure she would, even though in general she feels she may want to be more cautious in the future – not that she wasn’t cautious in the past, she explained, it is just like having a car accident: even if it wasn’t your fault, you will be more careful the next time you’re on the road!
Giles Coren, journalist and broadcaster, paid another visit to Goodfellas last year – seven years had passed since Caroline Workman’s original review. His colourful language and wicked sense of humour led the discussion to another interesting point. After the explosion of the Badfellagate (as it has been labelled on the web), preliminary legal consultation with publisher’s advisors has become an increasingly popular practice. The underlying idea is that anything that gets published must be defensible in court. Hence, Giles Coren suddenly found himself engaged in weekly conversation with the Times lawyers questioning his claims and proposing far less colourful versions. So, for instance, he was frequently invited to add the clause “in my opinion…” to turn down the tone of an unforgiving comment; or to modify the statement that a certain “tiramisu tastes of vole’s vomit” unless of course he could provide irrefutable evidence that he had actually experienced “vole’s vomit”. Is it the case that fair comment equals dull comment?
Siobhan Butterworth, peoples’ editor for The Guardian, proposed to consider the matter from a different angle and, setting the legal talk aside for a few minutes, she embraced the issues that are closer to consumers’ hearts in the internet era. The act of reviewing any type of public product or service, thus producing information readily available to the reader, has a considerable social impact. It is, after all, an act of social kindness towards other fellow citizens. Trust in the reviewer’s integrity plays a substantial role in the success of a review and readers need to know that the reviewer is keen to provide his or her honest opinion regardless of other circumstances or other interests that might be at stake. In this sense honesty and integrity are more important than fairness, she claimed.
Clearly, the first verdict in the lawsuit against the Irish News was headed in the opposite direction, with implications that were bound to affect the whole world of consumers, business owners and writers. The main concern was that, had that verdict been a final decision to the case, any business owner receiving a low rating for their services or products would have been entitled to instruct a lawsuit against the author of the rating. In circumstances like these, reviewers would be unable to write honestly for fear of being sued and negative ratings would disappear. Reviews would lose their role of consumer protection tool, because consumers would be unable to rely on them. Fortunately, this is not the case, at least for the time being. But it does not seem wise to rely on fortune.
The last contribution of the evening came from Sir Andrew Caldecott QC, specialist in libel cases, who concluded the encounter highlighting the role of reviewers as witnesses. In this light, the actual experience of the reviewer becomes critical to distinguish between facts and opinions in the fair comment defence. To illustrate, he quoted the paradoxical case of the reviewer of a concert whose comments claimed that it was the worst West-End show he had ever seen; except, as was later established, he had never seen it!
Turning to the future of libel legislation, Sir Caldecott’s words echoed Lord Lester’s hope that freedom of expression might soon be constitutionalized, thus ratifying the principles contained in such documents as the European Convention of Human Rights or the Human Rights Act. This measure would guarantee to reduce arbitrariness in matters like Caroline Workman’s case.
According to the existing legislation, if the Irish News had not won the appeal, the Belfast jury’s verdict would have gained persuasive authority for future decisions in the country (although it would not have become binding like judge-made law).
The different experiences of the individuals involved were successfully drawn together in the course of this event. All of these experiences feature a special interest in the struggle to practice, promote and protect freedom of speech and expression. Having focused on reviews, however, it should be noticed that they are objects of a very peculiar nature. On the one hand, they can be understood as pieces of information, which exhibit the characteristic of combining an objective and a subjective aspect: the service or product being reviewed is objective in that the same pizza dish in the same restaurant, for example, is generally available to be reviewed by any individual intending to try it out; the experience of it, however, is inherently subjective, it changes from one individual to another. These two aspects are reflected in the review that springs from the encounter between subject and object.
Lisa Appignanesi, at some point during the evening, uttered the intriguing question: is reviewing an art? Because reviews are an attempt to reproduce and transfer to others the experience lived by the author, it is possible to think of them as something similar to works of art (and especially for the essential part played by freedom!). However, after hearing all of tonight’s guests, it seems that precisely the qualities that assimilate them to works of art are the qualities that cause the most problems in legally defending them while also taking into account issues of reputation and fairness. Lord Lester, in defending Caroline Workman’s review declared: “It did not purport to be a factual report by a food scientist. It was a personal description by a food critic explaining why she formed a poor opinion of the restaurant…”
…Food for thought!
Report by Valeria Iacovelli
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/onewomansmeat/