Global Freedom of Expression

John v. Guardian News

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Press / Newspapers
  • Date of Decision
    December 12, 2008
  • Outcome
    Judgment in Favor of Defendant
  • Case Number
    [2008] EWHC 3066
  • Region & Country
    United Kingdom, Europe and Central Asia
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Civil Law, Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Defamation / Reputation, Press Freedom
  • Tags

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The England and Wales High Court (Queen’s Bench Division) struck out a claim submitted by Elton John, founder and chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), against a satirical article published by The Guardian. The article was a parody of Elton John’s diary written by the journalist Marina Hyde. It implied that John only gave a portion of the proceeds from a recent fundraising event to his AIDS charity. John sued The Guardian for libel on the grounds that the piece portrayed his commitment to EJAF as insincere and accused him of giving a small proportion of the funds collected to the foundation. The Court considered that the context of the article —being published in the “Weekend” section, with a humorous tone and using irony, allowed reasonable readers to understand that the article did not contain serious allegations. 


On 26 June 2008, Sir Elton John, founder and chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF), hosted the White Tie & Tiara Ball. The Ball was organized to raise funds for EJAF, a charity that sponsors educational programs to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. According to John, the Ball raised over £10.000.000. Arrangements were made with OK! magazine to publish photographs of the event. In the July 8 issue (available from July 1) of the magazine, there were images of John with many celebrities, such as former president of the United States, Bill Clinton.  

On Saturday 5 July 2008, The Weekend Section of The Guardian newspaper published a piece purported to be an extract of Elton John’s diary — “as seen by Marina Hyde”, the author of the article. This described the Ball as “preposterously lavish” and how guests “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’” [para. 1]. The parody diary also stated that “[o]nce we’ve subtracted all these costs, the leftovers go to my foundation. I call this care-o-nomics. As seen by Marina Hyde” [para. 1].

Elton John sued The Guardian for libel. According to the claimant, the natural meaning of the words complained of meant that John’s commitment to EJAF was so insincere that he hosted the ball only to give a small proportion of the funds collected to the foundation, once all the event’s expenses were covered, and that he used the event for self-promotion and meeting celebrities. The claimant also argued that, by way of innuendo, the words complained of meant that John falsely and dishonestly claimed “that all the money raised by the White Tie & Tiara Ball goes to EJAF” [para. 9].

The defendant lodged an application for summary judgment or for the claim to be struck out on the grounds that the words complained of do not bear the meanings the claimant attributes to them. The defendant argued the contested words meant “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” [para. 11], and that its article was fair comment on a matter of public interest, i.e. Elton John’s fundraising methods. 

Decision Overview

Justice Tugendhat delivered the opinion for the England and Wales High Court (Queen’s Bench Division). The central issue regarding freedom of expression that the Court analyzed was whether the words complained of in a satirical article published by The Guardian — which stated that the claimant knew that only a small proportion of the funds he collected for an event he organized were given to charity — were a statement of fact or commentary.

The claimant argued, citing Berezovskly v Forbes [2001] EMLR 45 and Berkoff v Burchill [1996] 4 All ER 1008, that although banter is not defamatory and “even serious imputations are not actionable if no-one would take them seriously” [para. 15], the meaning of words, or how they are understood, is a matter for a jury to decide.

For its part the defendant cited jurisprudence by the Strasbourg Court, that an “adverse finding for expressing honest value judgment is very likely to involve a violation of ECHR Art 10” [para. 17]. As such, by characterizing an impugned statement as a fact, instead of a value judgment, a claimant “can make an action more difficult to defend” [para. 17]. This would entail a risk of violating Article 10 of the European Convention. Moreover, the defendant held that no reasonable reader would understand the article as a serious allegation and that the piece was humorous and a form of teasing.  

The Court began its argument by stating that the meaning of words depends on their context. The context included that the edition of the newspaper taken as a whole, and the particular section of the newspaper in which the “diary” appeared. The Court noted it appeared in a pull-out section of The Guardian, called “Weekend” published on a Saturday. This section is divided further into other sections such as Starters, Fashion, Food & Drink, Features, etc. For the Court, “the designation of the section assists in understanding the extent to which particular speech is to be understood as factual or not” [para. 22]. Taking this into consideration, the Court concluded that the “Weekend” section is not the news section of the paper. 

Subsequently, the Court held that although the words were presented under the heading “A peek at the Diary of Sir Elton John,” as if they were an extract of the diary of the claimant, “it is common ground that no reasonable reader could understand them as being written by [him].”

In this transparently false attribution, the Court explained, the author used the literary device of irony. As defined by the Court, “Irony is a figure of speech in which the intended meaning is the opposite of that expressed by the words used” [para. 24]. Thus, since the Court considered that the attribution was literally false, “no reasonable reader could be misled by it” [para. 24].

The Court acknowledged that the article included statements of fact, such as the celebration of the claimant’s ball to support EJAF, and that pictures appeared in OK! magazine. Nonetheless, the parts of the article regarding only giving funds to EJAF once all the lavish expenses of the ball were covered “could not be understood by a reasonable reader of The Guardian Weekend section as containing the serious allegation” [para. 32], since a reasonable reader would expect such an accusation to be made without humor and “in a part of the newspaper devoted to news” [para. 32].

Since the words in the article did not have the meaning the claimant pleaded, the Court ordered to strike out the claim. 

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

This decision expands press freedom by protecting a humorous and satirical article. The Court’s analysis of the context of the contested piece was essential to understanding that no reasonable reader could read it as posing serious allegations, but rather as a form of social commentary on Elton John’s fundraising methods. Thus, the Court expanded the scope of freedom of expression by permitting satirical expression which might include, read literally, serious allegations.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.K., Berezovskly v Forbes [2001] EMLR 45
  • U.K., Berkoff v Burchill [1996] 4 All ER 1008

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

Decision (including concurring or dissenting opinions) establishes influential or persuasive precedent outside its jurisdiction.

This case did not set a binding or persuasive precedent either within or outside its jurisdiction. The significance of this case is undetermined at this point in time.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

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