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section heading icon     offline cases 1

This page highlights some offline defamation cases in Australia, the UK and other jurisdictions.

It covers -

Some more recent cases involving print and broadcast are explored on the following page.

subsection heading icon     introduction

The following paragraphs do not present a comprehensive picture of defamation in the print and broadcast media. An itemisation of major cases in different jurisdictions is found in works highlighted in the preceding page of this profile.

This page instead offers a brief discussion of a range of cases over the past 200 years, illustrating -

  • changing notions of fairness and free speech
  • different standards for the treatment of public figures
  • the role of personality in initiating and defending libel action
  • questions about whether it is sometimes best to ignore offensive statements
  • the uncertain fit between truth, justice and law

Readers of this site should conduct appropriate research before making their own judgements about circumstances, claims and counter-claims.

subsection heading icon     Short and Lyons

In 1826 Sydney resident Francis Short sued the Sydney Gazette over implications that he had committed perjury. His lawyer indicated that Short was aware of a commercial world wider than the Australian colonies and claimed that the Gazette's words "might be read in England, at the Cape and in India". It was "very improper" to print claims about Short as "those whose eyes it caught might suppose, for the first time in their lives, that Francis Scott had been guilty of perjury" but would not encounter a statement in defence of Short.

Twelve years later ex-convict and successful businessman Samuel Lyons gained substantial damages from the Sydney Herald over allegations that he was involved in an auction racket. The Herald claimed that, as a former felon, Lyons had no reputation to lose. He argued that the allegations were attributable to political malice and his decision to withdraw advertising support from the paper. The judge and jury disagreed with the publisher, finding that Lyons did have a reputation to lose.

subsection heading icon     Brunswick

In 1848 exiled German ruler Karl II, Duke of Brunswick & Luneberg (1804-1873), heard that he had been maligned in the 1830 Weekly Dispatch, a London newspaper. His manservant discovered a copy at the British Museum and also obtained a copy from the Dispatch's publisher Harmer, who was then sued by the Duke (even though at that time there was a six year limit on initiation of libel action, now a mere 12 months).

The Court of Queen's Bench ruled in 1849 that Harmer's provision of a single copy during the previous year constituted a separate act of publication, with the statutory period for litigation commencing at that time rather than when the Dispatch was printed and distributed in 1830. The Duke was awarded £500.

Duke of Brunswick & Luneberg v Harmer (aka The Duke of Brunswick's Case) has been a foundation for what constitutes a publication in defamation and that a cause of action arises in each jurisdiction where the material is read.

Michael Kirby in the Gutnick case commented

The idea that this court should solve the present problem by reference to judicial remarks made in England in a case, decided more than 150 years ago, involving the conduct of the manservant of a duke, dispatched to procure a back issue of a newspaper of minuscule circulation, is not immediately appealing to me

a sentiment echoed by UK Appeals Court Justice Lord Phillips in 2005, saying that if a latter-day duke tried to sue in similar circumstances he would be given short shrift: "We would today condemn the entire exercise as an abuse of process".

Duke Karl is otherwise famous only for losing the 'Opera Game' in a chess contest against Paul Morphy at the Paris Opera House in 1858 and for peculiarities such as wearing diamond-encrusted underwear. He had boasted that were it not for his wealth he would be in an insane asylum.

subsection heading icon     Whistler and Ruskin

In 1877 cultural critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) slammed James Whistler's Nocturne in Black & Gold: The Falling Rocket with the comment that

For Mr Whistler's own sake, no less than for the protection of the purchaser, Sir Coutts Lindsay ought not to have admitted works into the gallery in which the ill-educated conceit of the artist so nearly approached the aspect of wilful imposture. I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face.

Whistler (1834-1903) sought damages of £1000 in a libel suit against Ruskin, claiming that his "reputation as an artist has been much damaged by the said libel".

The jury agreed but apparently did not consider the damage was great, with a derisory one farthing being awarded as damages. Whistler was bankrupted by his legal costs; Ruskin relapsed into madness.

Subsequent critics have questioned whether Whistler's action was founded on an admirable concern to protect his integrity or on hubris, with a badly-judged bid for publicity. All publicity, it seems, is not necessary good publicity ... although Whistler is now often considered the victor.

Henry Ford, accused by the Chicago Tribune in 1916 of being an "ignorant idealist" filed a US$1m defamation suit. At the trial in 1919 the Tribune's lawyers had a field day demonstrating Ford's ignorance and zaniness (shortly to be evident in promotion of the vile farrago titled the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion). The Tribune was found guilty but Ford was awarded a derisory six cents damages.

subsection heading icon     Speight v Syme

Richard Speight (1838-1901) led major expansion of the Victorian railway network during the bubble that preceded the disastrous 1890s crash in Australia. After two years of bitter criticism by The Age - with claims of incompetence, dereliction of duty, extravagance and contempt of parliament - Speight and his fellow railway commissioners were suspended by the incoming Shiels government in 1892.

Speight responded with a writ against The Age and publisher David Syme (1827-1908), alleging libel on eleven counts and seeking £25,000 (roughly worth $2m in 2005). Syme pleaded 'fair comment' in two defamation actions ensued in June 1893 and September 1894.

Speight's action was heard first, over 92 sitting days, ended a verdict for him for £100 on one count and disagreement on the other counts. A second action over 88 sitting days resulted in damages of one farthing on one count for Speight. Syme was victorious on the other nine counts. The case cost Syme an estimated £50,000 in costs but provided unprecedented popular acclaim.

subsection heading icon     Wilde and Eulenberg

Playwright and gadfly Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) sued the decidedly "mad, bad and dangerous to know" Marquis of Queensberry for libel after the peer famously accused him - in a card left with the hall porter at the Albermarle Club in 1895 - of "posing as a somdomite". Homosexual acts were a criminal offence under the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act ('Labouchere Act') and remained so until 1967. (Residents of Tasmania had to wait until 1997.)

Wilde's libel action was unsuccessful. He was consequently arrested and tried for sodomy, being sent to hard labour in Reading Prison before dying in poverty in France. The cases arguably shaped English cultural and social life up to and beyond the Wolfenden era.

Responses to Wilde's defamation action have varied, with some figures arguing that having chosen to live among the glitterati (or as an Irish gentleman and aesthete among foxhunting philistines) Wilde had no choice other than to defend his honour.

Across the channel his contemporary Philipp, Prince zu Eulenberg-Hertefeld (1847-1921), a favourite of the wayward Kaiser Wilhelm II, was slower to respond to allegations from socialists and conservative opponents such as the acidulous Maximilian Harden (1861-1927).

Defamation action by Eulenberg and associates was muddied by institutional homophobia and political agendas, with the specifics being lost amid conflicts over the shape of foreign policy, class warfare, the Kaiser's entourage and the market for sensation. It resulted in the end of his career and public life.

subsection heading icon     Parnell and O'Brien

In 1889 Parnellite MP William O'Brien sued UK Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (1830-1903) for slander, claiming £10,000 damages over the PM's comments about O'Brien's support for terrorism in Ireland. The Manchester jury found in Salisbury's favour.

Two years earlier, at the height of public debate about coercion against Irish independence, the London Times published letters – acquired for £1,780 – supposedly from Charles Parnell (1846-1891) to a Fenian bomber. Parnell sued the Times for defamation.

During the trial it became clear that, in a precursor of the 'Hitler Diaries' fraud highlighted elsewhere on this site, the newspaper had been conned: the letters were a concoction by notorious blackmailer, pornographer and forger Richard Pigott.

Parnell received £5,000 damages plus costs, Pigott blew his brains out in Madrid, participation in the trial and an associated commission of inquiry cost the Times £200,000. Rudyard Kipling's Cleared quipped that

if print is print or words are words,
the learned court perpends,
We are not ruled by murderers,
but only – by their friends

reflecting the Commission's demonstration that the Irish Nationalist MPs had "their hand on the throttle valve of crime". The Nationalist party then tore itself apart over Parnell's adultery. Jurist Albert Dicey's The verdict: a tract on the political significance of the report of the Parnell Commission acknowledged the forgery and defamation but, on the basis of information published during the trial and the commission, commented

A man cannot, as things stand, accept Parnellism, or for that matter Gladstonianism, without favouring revolution. The opposition between Unionists and Gladstonians is now the essential opposition between citizens who are determined that even legal or desirable ends shall never, in a free state, be attained by violent and lawless methods - and men who hold that ends which, rightly or not, they hold desirable or politic or just, be attained by means which break the law of the land and undermine the power of the state. The cause of Unionism has thus become the cause of legal justice against the cause of violence, the cause of constitutionalism against the cause of revolution

subsection heading icon     the Cherry Sisters

It is unclear whether a famously 'rotten review' in 1901 ended the theatrical career of the Cherry Sisters, US vaudevillians slammed in a review in Odebolt Chronicle and Des Moines Leader as

Effie is an old jade of 50 summers, Jessie a frisky filly of 40, and Addie, the flower of the family, a capering monstrosity of 35. Their long, skinny arms, equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. The mouths of their rancid features opened like caverns and sounds like the wailings of damned souls issued therefrom. They pranced around the stage with a motion that suggested a cross between the danse du ventre and a fox trot, strange creatures with painted faces and hideous mien. Effie is spavined, Addie is stringhalt, and Jessie, the only one who showed her stockings, has legs without calves, as classic in their outlines as the curves of a broom handle.

The Iowa Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the performers, who had unsuccessfully sought damages for libel. The initial court had commented that

Ridicule is often the strongest weapon in the hands of a public writer; and, if it be fairly used, the presumption of malice which would otherwise arise is rebutted, and it becomes necessary to introduce evidence of actual malice, or of some indirect motive or wish to gratify private spite. There is a manifest distinction between matters of fact and comment on or criticism of undisputed facts or conduct. Unless this be true, liberty of speech and of the press guarantied by the constitution is nothing more than a name

The Supreme court agreed, holding that

One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public, or who gives any kind of a performance to which the public is invited, may be freely criticised ... The comments, however, must be based on truth, or on what in good faith and upon probable cause is believed to be true, and the matter must be pertinent to the conduct that is made the subject of criticism.

US courts at the federal and state level have tended to offer arts critics greater latitude than courts in the UK and Australia.

subsection heading icon     Greene, Shirley Temple and Papa Doc

Novelist Graham Greene (1904-91), in a Night & Day review of Shirley Temple's saccharine Wee Willie Winkey, commented that

infancy with her is a disguise, her appeal is more secret and more adult ... her neat and well-developed rump twisted in the tape dance: her eyes had a sidelong searching coquetry ...

her admirers - middle-aged men and clergymen - respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality

Temple's studio Twentieth Century-Fox sued, with Greene paying £500 in damages and £3,500 in costs after the judge deemed the review "a gross outrage". Night & Day, meant to be the UK counterpart of the New Yorker or Mencken's Smart Set, expired with neither a bang nor a whimper.

Greene's loss has been attributed to the judge's personal foibles and as an instance of middleclass grundyism, a reproof by judge and jury to the bright young things presumed to read Night & Day.

Greene's 1966 novel The Comedians pictured the Duvalier family regime in Haiti as based on corruption, voodoo, murder and torture. Papa Doc's publicists responded by claiming that the book had resulted in a dramatic slump in Haiti's tourist trade, declaring in Graham Greene Finally Exposed that he was a a "pervert" and a "cretin''. Francois Duvalier sued Greene in a French court for ten million francs, winning the case but receiving damages of a single franc.

subsection heading icon     Rasputin and MGM

The 1934 'Rasputin' trial in London saw plaintiff Princess Irina Youssoupoff, niece of the slain Russian Tsar Nicholas II, sue Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for defamation over the studio's gaudy Rasputin & the Empress - starring not one but three Barrymores.

The Princess did not dispute that Rasputin had been murdered at her husband's residence (given that Prince Youssoupoff had written a book claiming credit for the deed) but took offence over the film's suggestion that she had been seduced by the 'mad monk'. She was awarded US$125,000, at that time the largest libel judgment in England, and the Youssoupoffs launched defamation suits in most jurisdictions where the film was exhibited.

MGM thereafter settled for an undisclosed sum, supposedly over US$500,000, and emphasised rubrics such as the disingenuous "This film bears no resemblance to any persons living or dead".

subsection heading icon     Hardy, Hewett and Lohrey

Australian novelist and CPA member Frank Hardy (1917-1994) was tried for criminal libel in Victoria during 1951 over alleged depiction in his roman-a-clef Power Without Glory of Ellen Wren, wife of prominent businessman and Australian Labor Party fixer John Wren.

The litigation turned into a pro/anti-communist circus following the High Court's overturn of the Communist Party Dissolution Act 1950 and moves by the Menzies Government for a Constitutional referendum to ban the Communist Party. Hardy's lawyers subsequently conceded that they had aimed to throw mud ... and make it stick.

Hardy was acquitted, with the jury apparently keen on punishing Wren at his wife's expense, something that commentator William Rubinstein labelled as "a blatant miscarriage of justice". Power Without Glory enjoyed a momentary celebrity in Australia before disappearing into the stacks along with other famous but unread tracts.

That notoriety might have been observed by novelist Hal Porter (1911-1984), who sued over a 1964 review of his autobiography The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony imputing that he sought to provoke a ban through inclusion of offensive language. The 1969 poem Uninvited Guest by Dorothy Hewett (1923-2002) about her former husband Lloyd Davies and his wife provoked action by the aggrieved ex-spouse.

Twenty years later Amanda Lohrey's The Reading Group was the subject of protracted negotiations after former politician Terry Aulich claimed he had been defamed as 'The Senator'. Aulich reportedly received a cash settlement; the novel was reissued in a revised form.

subsection heading icon     Liberace and Cassandra

In 1956 an item in the London Daily Mirror characterised US celebrity Liberace (1919-1987) in terms that were almost as camp as the performer. Columnist William Connor (1909-1967) described the pianist as

this deadly, winking, sniggering, snuggling, chromium-plated, scent-impregnated, luminous, quivering, giggling, fruit-flavoured, mincing, ice-covered heap of mother-love ...

He reeks with emetic language that can only make grown men long for a quiet corner, an aspidistra, a handkerchief, and the old heave-ho. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother, winking at his brother, and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss has an answer for every situation.

There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in such a preposterous clown

As a performer in pre-Wolfenden Britain Liberace complained that the words were an imputation of homosexuality. He testified that he had never engaged in homosexual acts, declaring "I am against the practice because it offends convention and it offends society".

The jury apparently agreed, awarding £8,000 damages. It is unclear whether the award was a poke in the eye of 'big media' or a reflection of the UK public's conflicted ideas about sexual mores, camp and "boys who want to marry a gal just like mom".

Liberace, having perjured himself, boasted "I cried all the way to the bank".

In 2005 singer Robbie Williams won a substantial payment (upwards of in action against The People and UK magazines Star and Hot Stars over claims in 2004 that he lied about his sexual orientation. The publications issued a public apology as part of the settlement at the High Court. The People had featured a front page story with the headline "Robbie's secret gay lover", with the inference that Williams was dishonest in pretending that his relationships were restricted to women, whereas he supposedly engaged in "casual and sordid gay encounters with strangers", lipsmackingly described by the publications.

Observers commented that in 2005 most people in the UK did not consider that suggesting someone was gay is defamatory. Peter Tatchell commented that going to court over an allegation of homosexuality "implies there is something shameful about being gay". Stating or implying that the person is a liar is, however, the basis for legal action. Williams' lawyers commented he sued because the defamatory items were about having sex with a stranger in a toilet, rather than that the supposed sexual act involved another man.

subsection heading icon     Dering and Uris

Leon Uris (1924-2003) and publisher Bantam faced defamation action in 1964 over his novel Exodus. Dr Wadislaw Dering, a former concentration camp inmate, claimed that he had been defamed through portrayal as having carried out medical experiments at Auschwitz on human subjects with callousness and brutality.

In a Solomonic judgement the court ruled that although the callousness of Dr Dering might have been exaggerated, he had betrayed his duty to refuse to participate in medical experiments that were inherently criminal, irrespective of the way that they were carried out. In finding that he had been defamed the court awarded him damages of "the smallest coin in the realm" - a half penny, as farthings had disappeared since the time of Ruskin - and awarded costs against him.

Uris recycled the trial in his 1970 novel QB VII.

There was a more unfortunate outcome for Rezso Kasztner, characterised by Malkiel Grunwald in 1952 as a "collaborator" over his attempt to rescue people from the Holocaust and criticised by Israel's Attorney-General in 1955 for having "sold his soul to satan". Kasztner unsuccessfully sued Grunwald for defamation over allegations that he had saved only relatives, neighbours and associates or the rich and powerful, being vindicated in 1958 after being assassinated in the preceding year. William Rubinstein commented in 2008 that

From our present vantage point, it is difficult to arrive at any other view but that Kasztner was a man whose wrongful conviction was as egregious a moral outrage as Alfred Dreyfus's.

His story is recounted in Kasztner's Train (London: Constable 2008) by Anna Porter and Dealing With Satan: Rezso Kasztner's Daring Rescue Mission (London: Cape 2008) by Ladislaus Loeb.

subsection heading icon     Sullivan, Westmoreland and Sharon

The landmark Sullivan v New York Times decision by the US Supreme Court related to action by individuals, including Montgomery police commissioner L.B. Sullivan, regarding a civil rights campaign advertisement that had appeared in the Times. Sullivan and Mayor Earl James, neither of whom were specifically named in that ad, initially won US$500,000 each in trials in the state court at Montgomery.

The Times successfully appealed to the Supreme Court, which held in 1964 that - in the absence of malice - the US Constitution prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood related to his official conduct. Malice involves publication of a statement "with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

The decision was characterised as reflecting a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhabited, robust, and wide-open, potentially featuring "vehement, caustic and unpleasantly sharp attacks" on government and public officials.

Sullivan famously cleared the way for aggressive reporting of the civil rights and antiwar movements. Questions about malice featured in litigation by former US Army General William Westmoreland (1914-2005) against the CBS television network for US$120 million over the 1982 Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception current affairs program that had accused him of exaggerating American military performance during the Vietnam war. The protagonists reached a private settlement, after an 18 week jury trial, in what amounted to a surrender on both sides. Fighting about Vietnam and its lessons continues unabated.

In the Sharon case Israeli general (and later Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon was accused by Time Magazine of plotting with Sheik Pierre Gemayel (1905-1984) to avenge the death of his son through action in 1982 by Lebanese Phalangist units against Palestinian camps at Sabra and Shatila. The court found that the Time article was both false and defamatory.

subsection heading icon     McCarthy and Hellman

US novelist Mary McCarthy (1912-1989), known for the energy of her literary criticism and disrespect for stalinists among the New York chattering classes, denounced playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) in a 1980 television interview with talkshow host Dick Cavett. Most pithily, in what appears to have been a rehearsed response, McCarthy said that "every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'".

Hellman, supposedly more in sorrow than in anger, responded by seeking several million dollars damages. That defamation suit against McCarthy was dropped after Hellman's death.

McCarthy, who appears to have deliberately provoked the litigation as a mechanism for exposing Hellman's equivocal relationship with the truth, commented

If someone had told me, don't say anything about Lillian Hellman because she'll sue you, it wouldn't have stopped me. It might have spurred me on. I didn't want her to die. I wanted her to lose in court. I wanted her around for that.

Hellman has since been characterised as "a compulsive liar" who did not hesitate to threaten legal action against those with different political views or merely a questioning attitude to her self promotion and who had blithely appropriated other people's lives in works such as her 'memoir' Pentimento.

Hellman might have approved of the controversial Wilfred Burchett (1911-1983), problematically tagged as "the greatest journalist Australia has ever produced". In 1974 he sued senator Jack Kane after the passionately anticommunist MP identified him in the DLP newsletter Focus, not unreasonably, as an apologist for Stalinism and - more tendentiously - as a soviet agent. Amid anxieties about the Vietnam War Burchett lost the case and was hit with court costs.

The court was apparently influenced by testimony from former POWs who had encountered Burchett when he visited North Korea and were unimpressed by his claim that Kim Il Sung's prison camps were "akin to luxury European health resorts". It found that Kane had reported claims made by Senator Vince Gair in the national parliament under parliamentary privilege. Burchett, with considerable chutzpah, given his stance on Eastern Bloc political trials, characterised the case as a show trial and propaganda, complaining of media bias.

subsection heading icon     Buthelezi

In 1975 South African news magazine To the Point claimed that Reverend Manas Buthelezi spoke publicly of the need for peaceful change but according to "reliable sources" privately advocated "violence" against the Apartheid regime, a claim that might have have resulted in Buthelezi's imprisonment.

He sued the publisher for defamation, demanding the names of the supposed sources. The court awarded damages to Buthelezi and during the subsequent 'Information Scandal' it became apparent that the article had been written by the SA secret police.

subsection heading icon     Maudling and Maxwell

UK former Home Secretary Reginald Maudling (1917-79) sued the Daily Mirror and Granada Television over accusations that he had received remunerative directorships from property speculator John Poulson (along with gifts to a charity closely associated with Maudling's wife) as a reward for parliamentary questions and speeches that benefited Poulson. The sting of those accusations lay in the claim that Maudling should have declared an interest. Poulson had become notorious for corrupt payments to local government officials.

Maudling's conduct - defended as seeking "a little pot of money for my old age" - had been investigated in 1977 by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which found no evidence of corruption but criticised him for failing to declare an interest. Even that criticism was not accepted by the Tory-controlled House, which merely 'noted' the report. The ailing Maudling was not expelled from Parliament.

His close involvement with Jerome Hoffman and the Real Estate Fund of America, a major 'offshore fund' whose collapse was investigated by his own department, had meanwhile attracted attention. The Mirror and Granada defended their statements on the grounds of 'justification', arguing that the accusations were true despite the finding by the House. Maudling's death meant that the dispute was not resolved. The 'Poulson Affair' led to establishment of a Register of Members' Interests in 1975.

Media mogul Robert Maxwell - now best known for his colourful demise ("crash, splash, no more Capn Bob") after looting a succession of public companies - used UK defamation law to chill criticism and investigation of his activities.

subsection heading icon     Archer and Allason

UK Conservative MP Jeffrey Archer won £500,000 in damages and £700,000 in legal costs from UK tabloid the Daily Star in 1987 over its accusation that he had paid a prostitute £2,000 pounds for services and lied about it. In 1999 associate Ted Francis admitted having provided a false alibi for Lord Archer, who subsequently received a four year jail sentence for lying about the prostitute and had to pay the Star £2.7 million (including interest on what he had received).

Conservative MP Rupert Allason (aka Nigel West) used parliamentary privilege to attack Maxwell in the House of Commons, referring to research by US author Seymour Hersh. That provoked retaliation through an unsigned article in the publisher's Daily Mirror. Allason sued the publisher. After Maxwell's misdeeds were officially exposed in 1991, the Mirror reportedly paid Allason a £230,000 settlement. He subsequently claimed to have won 17 defamation cases, representing himself.

He had less luck in 1998 when he sued the BBC after a book based on the Have I Got News for You show stated

given Mr Allason's fondness for pursuing libel actions, there are also excellent legal reasons for not referring to him as a conniving little shit.

The judge in that case decided it was "mere abuse" and found in the BBC's favour, with presenter Angus Deayton thereupon gleefully repeating the characterisation.

The Mirror was hit with counterclaims brought by Hersh and publisher Faber & Faber over articles attacking them. In 1994 it paid substantial damages and costs.

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version of September 2008
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