Singer Morrissey’s libel action over an article about his attitude to immigration can go ahead, the High Court ruled today.
The former Smiths frontman is suing the NME over a November 2007 interview and has claimed journalists on the weekly magazine deliberately tried to characterise him as a racist.
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Publisher IPC Media Limited’s counsel, Catrin Evans, had asked Mr Justice Tugendhat to “strike out” the action as an abuse of process, saying it was “not a genuine bid for vindication”.
Morrissey’s lawyers have said that continued lack of assistance from his former manager, Merck Mercuriadis, with whom he parted company in May 2008, was principally to blame for delay in progressing the claim, as he was a crucial witness and supplier of documents.
The 52-year-old star was not in court to hear that his case can proceed to trial – which is unlikely to take place before next summer.
The singer is claiming damages over an item headlined “Morrissey Big Mouth strikes again”, which included a quote of him saying: “The gates of England are flooded. The country’s been thrown away”.
He says that it meant that, despite his protestations to the contrary, he was a racist who insisted on espousing shockingly extremist right wing views.
His case is that the editing of the words complained of from the full transcript of the interviews was deliberately distorted to create maximum publicity and promote the “Love Music Hate Racism” campaign.
NME argues that the words constituted fair comment on a matter of public interest in that they were expressions of opinion – that Morrissey’s views smacked of a “naive hypocrisy” and mostly sounded “as raving as those of a rogue Tory MP”.
After the ruling, an NME spokesperson said: “NME recently sought to strike out Morrissey’s claim on grounds of a lengthy delay. After almost four years, we are glad that the matter will now proceed to trial and we will finally get the opportunity to bring this matter to a close.”
The judge said that, on the papers before him, it was not possible for him to disbelieve Morrissey’s explanation as to why he did not pursue the action after May 2008.
“His explanation is credible. I cannot infer that he ceased to have an intention to progress the action to trial, or that he has been abusing the process of the court by failing to progress it to trial.
“He ought, of course, to have progressed the action, but to strike out the action would be a disproportionate sanction for this breach of the CPR (Civil Procedure Rules).”
He added: “The imputation complained of in this action is a very serious one, the extent of publication was very wide.
“Mr Morrissey remains a prominent figure in the world of music, and NME is a magazine which enjoys an important place in that world.”
The judge accepted there would be some prejudice to the defence because of the difficulty in remembering details of the events in question after four years.
“But the question I have to decide is whether it is now no longer possible for there to be a fair trial of the action. In my judgment that point has not been reached. The delay is not as great as that.”