Sir Elton John v Guardian News & Media Limited – Queensbench Division – defamation

December 14, 2008 |

Sir Elton John is not famous for his sense of humour. There is a steady stream of you tube videos evidencing that. Little wonder that he commenced proceedings against the Guardian Newspaper. His claim has hit an early bump in the litigation road. Guardian had significant success in striking out Sir Elton’s claim. Guardian pleaded fair comment. It is a useful decision dealing with an application to strike out imputations.

The article

The article in a weekend piece was:


Sir Elton John

What a few days it’s been. First I sang Happy Birthday to my dear, dear friend Nelson Mandela – I like to think I’m one of the few people privileged enough to call him Madiba – at a party specially organised to provide white celebrities with a chance to be photographed cuddling him, wearing that patronisingly awestruck smile they all have. It says: “I love you, you adorable, apartheid-fighting teddy bear.”

The next night I welcomed the exact same crowd to my place for my annual White Tie & Tiaras ball. Lulu, Kelly Osbourne, Agyness Deyn, Richard Desmond, Liz Hurley, Bill Clinton – I met most of them 10 minutes ago, but we have something very special and magical in common: we’re all members of the entertainment industry. You can’t manufacture a connection like that.

Naturally, everyone could afford just to hand over the money if they gave that much of a toss about Aids research – as could the sponsors. But we like to give guests a preposterously lavish evening, because they’re the kind of people who wouldn’t turn up for anything less. They fork out small fortunes for new dresses and so on, the sponsors blow hundreds of thousands on creating what convention demands we call a “magical world”, and everyone wears immensely smug “My diamonds are by Chopard” grins in the newspapers and OK. Once we’ve subtracted all these costs, the leftovers go to my foundation. I call this care-o-nomics. As seen by Marina Hyde

The allegations

The court helpfully extracts the meanings alleged, at paragraph 9, of the article:

“7. In their natural and ordinary meaning the words complained of meant and were understood to mean that the Claimant’s commitment to EJAF and its aims and objectives is so insincere that he

1) hosts the White Tie & Tiara Ball knowing that once the costs of the Ball have been covered only the small proportion of the money raised which is left over is available for EJAF to distribute to good causes and;

2) uses the White Tie & Tiara Ball as an occasion for meeting celebrities and/or self promotion rather than for raising money for EJAF and the good causes it supports.

8. By way of innuendo the words complained of meant and were understood to mean that the commitment of the Claimant to the stated aims and objectives of EJAF is so insincere that he dishonestly or falsely claims that all the money raised by the White Tie & Tiara Ball goes to EJAF whereas the true position is that once the costs of the Ball have been covered only the small proportion of the money raised by the Ball which is left over is available for EJAF to distribute to good causes.


1) The programme for the 10th White Tie & Tiara Ball carried an introduction from the Claimant which stated that “…every penny raised goes to [EJAF].”

2) In the premises, the said facts and matters would have been known to a substantial but unquantifiable number of readers of the words complained of and these readers would have understood the same to bear the meaning set out at paragraph 8 above.”

The Defence

The Guardian denied the words meant or could mean what was alleged. It also pleaded, in the alternative, fair comment:

“11. If and insofar as the words complained of bore the meaning that the Claimant’s conduct in arranging a lavish celebrity ball was distasteful and wasteful, because all of the money spent on the ball should have been given to EJAF, they were fair comment on a matter of public interest. The matter of public interest was the Claimant’s method of fundraising for his charity.”

To defeat the fair comment complaint Sir Elton pleaded malice.

The Decision on meaning….

When embarking on the exercise of determining whether words complained of are capable of bearing the meanings attributed to them the context is an important starting point. As the court pithily commented, at paragraph 19:

the meaning of words, in law as in life, depends upon their context.

The factors the court considered were:

  • the article was written in the Weekend Section of the paper. It was not, nor could it be expected to be, regarded as a hard news piece.
  • no reader could regard the piece as having been written by Sir Elton;
  • it was either a humorous piece or at least an attempt at humour;
  • the article is an exercise in irony.

Irony can be defamatory. As the court said, at paragraph 24 & 25:

Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used. The words complained of are obviously words written by the journalist, who has attributed them to the Claimant as a literary device. The attribution is literally false, but no reasonable reader could be misled by it. ….


Irony is not always a form of sarcasm or ridicule, although it is often used in that way. It is the Defendant’s case that that is what it is in the present case. The Claimant accepts that the words complained of are obviously an attempt at humour, as well as being a snide attack on the Claimant. Nevertheless, his case is also that the reasonable reader could understand the words complained of to be statements of fact about the Claimant. As he puts it, the device is to take factual matters and put words into the Claimant’s mouth to reveal his true attitude.

The court found that the words complained of could not sustain the serious allegation made against the Guardian. The court accepted the Defendant’s submission that it was a form of teasing. It also stated, returning to the theme of context, that “…If that was the allegation being made, a reasonable reader would expect so serious an allegation to be made without humour, and explicitly, in a part of the newspaper devoted to news.”

It is a useful decision in considering the issue of fair comment involving a light weekend piece.

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