This page highlights some offline defamation cases in Australia,
the UK and other jurisdictions.
It covers -
more recent cases involving print and broadcast are explored
on the following page.
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 -
notions of fairness and free speech
standards for the treatment of public figures
role of personality in initiating and defending libel action
about whether it is sometimes best to ignore offensive statements
uncertain fit between truth, justice and law
of this site should conduct appropriate research before making
their own judgements about circumstances, claims and counter-claims.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
(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
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.
Speight v Syme
(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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
Iowa Supreme Court rejected
an appeal by the performers, who had unsuccessfully sought
damages for libel. The initial court had commented that
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
Supreme court agreed, holding that
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
courts at the federal and state level have tended to offer
arts critics greater latitude than courts in the UK and Australia.
Greene, Shirley Temple and Papa Doc
Novelist Graham Greene (1904-91), in a Night & Day
review of Shirley Temple's saccharine Wee Willie Winkey,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Mr Allason's fondness for pursuing libel actions, there
are also excellent legal reasons for not referring to him
as a conniving little shit.
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.
(offline defamation cases 2)