The outcome of a challenge to libel damages awarded over a newspaper restaurant review will have worldwide implications, judges hearing the case were told today.
Lord Lester QC, for the Irish News, urged the Court of Appeal to find the defence of fair comment had been successfully argued and to quash the £25,000 payout to Ciarnan Convery, owner of west Belfast eatery Goodfellas.
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The three judge panel, headed by Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Kerr, reserved judgment following two days of legal arguments.
With much of the case centred on interpretations of the difference between fact and comment, the court heard how the decision reached could have major consequences for the role of critics.
Lord Lester, in his closing submissions, insisted that as long as no malice or dishonesty was involved, any rating given could be justified.
He said: “All you have to establish is that the person went to the theatre or restaurant and gave it one, two, three, four or five stars.
“If that were not so one would be in the perfectly ludicrous position every time a food guide or theatre guide rate performances in a certain way you would have libel proceedings.”
Before finishing, the barrister added: “This issue transcends the importance of this jurisdiction. I believe the judgment your lordships will give will be very important across the common law world.”
Mr Convery, a former taxi driver who opened Goodfellas in 1991, sued over a review in the Irish News in August 2000 by the newspaper’s food critic Caroline Workman.
She was critical of the quality of food and drink, the staff and smoky atmosphere at the premises on Kennedy Way, west Belfast.
Giving it a rating of one star out of five, Ms Workman said her overall impression was one of huge disappointment.
According to Mr Convery the review was a hatchet job. His lawyers claimed it was defamatory, damaging and hurtful, and a High Court jury agreed unanimously with this assessment following a trial last February. The Irish News was ordered to pay damages and Mr Convery’s legal costs.
During the appeal Lord Lester stressed the newspaper’s defence of fair comment, public interest and justification.
But Michael Lavery QC, for Mr Convery, rejected claims that the jury had been misdirected.
The barrister, who claimed reviewers must be able to offer proof to back their views, said: “The way the jury approached this is they isolated the facts from the comment and they looked at the defamatory words.”
Before rising Sir Brian said the judges wanted time to reflect on the case and would deliver their ruling as soon as it was appropriate.