Legal big cheeses get their teeth into libel appeal

 

Miriam Lord at the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal A fascinating legal food fight is in full swing in Belfast. The Irish Newsis appealing against a £25,000 libel damages award for a blistering restaurant review it printed eight years ago on a west Belfast eatery called Goodfellas. 

The result had food critics everywhere dropping their forks in shock as they considered the possible implications of the finding, which raised wider questions about press freedom.

Writing about her visit to Goodfellas, food critic Caroline Workman had been unimpressed by pretty much everything she encountered. She deemed a chicken dish "inedible" and a glass of Coca Cola she found to be flat, warm and watery. Workman awarded the restaurant one star out of five. Owner Ciarnan Convery successfully sued.

The Irish Newshas drafted in legal big cheese Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC, to spearhead its challenge. Opening the appeal yesterday, the eminent silk said the case "obviously raises issues of great public importance", with freedom of expression at stake.

Representing Mr Convery is veteran local big hitter Michael Lavery QC, who argued the jury's decision was "a very perceptive one", where they distinguished between what was fact and what was comment.

Lord Lester told the court that the review of Goodfellas was based on honest comment and been written "in good faith and without malice" by an experienced food critic of integrity. The article was her personal opinion. "In law, as everywhere, context is everything," said the QC.

Two theatre critics, for example, might produce conflicting judgments on the same play, he said, yet both can be written in good faith, without dishonesty. Indeed, he has often been on the way home from a meal with his wife when she says the food was delicious but he says "it was awful, I felt sick". Neither he nor Lady Lester is being dishonest. The "substratum of fact" is there.

"I have to confess," said Lord Chief Justice Sir Brian Kerr, "to being a relative novice in this area".

But back to the Coca Cola. "What I might find flat, my Lord Justice Girvan might find effervescent," said Chief Justice Kerr. Was the reviewer's comment on the chicken masala comment or fact? What may be "sickly" to him, mused the chief justice, might be acceptable to their Lordships Girvan and Campbell.

Michael Lavery pounced. "Where are the supporting facts?" In his view, a critic who makes a pronouncement about a restaurant must be able to produce facts to justify it.

"How can you ever give a view about a piece of food when it is based on your own perception?" wondered Lord Justice Girvan. Well, countered Mr Lavery, if he couldn't stick his knife into a steak, that would be proof.

But what, asked the chief justice, about Lord and Lady Lester on their way home from dinner, when one thinks the food was delicious and the other thinks it woeful? Lavery, QC, could see that was fine for a chat in the car but it proved nothing about the quality of the food they ate. He prefers incontrovertible evidence and essayed an example: "My Dover sole was absolutely smelly."

Sir Brian Kerr returned to the sickly sweet chicken masala. "Someone else might have wolfed it down. She [the reviewer] wasn't saying the chicken was literally inedible."

To which Michael Lavery riposted that Ms Workman would need the facts to justify her statement.

But Mr Justice Girvan was concerned. "Anyone doing a culinary critique would have to justify it then."

So be it, was Mr Lavery's opinion. "Reviewers, no more than anybody else, should not be allowed to avoid the proof of some facts to justify their comments, and if they can't do it, then it's bad luck to them. Freedom of expression isn't a licence for a newspaper publisher to say what they like." The case may conclude today.