Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Friday, March 10, 2006
Happy libel fun. Looks like Neil Clark is threatening to sue Oliver Kamm for libel.

I ain't saying nuffin. Except that this is a good book and you should buy a copy. Possibly several copies.

My favourite libel story concerns the actor, playwright and director, Steven Berkoff. In 1996 Berkoff successfully sued Julie Burchill of the Times after she wrote that Berkoff was "hideously ugly."

In fact he's not ugly at all. Berkoff's action in going to the funeral of Reginald Kray and eulogising that sadistic criminal was ugly, but his face is OK.

Here's what the Sunday Herald said:

And the respect that Reggie engendered? Actor and utter twit Stephen Berkoff, who had apparently attended the ugly spectacle, was allowed a long and ponderous epitaph to the pathetic old lag in the gaudy coffin.

Given the all-important validating news time, how the ghastly old luvvie droned on. Oh dear, dear Reggie. He was an icon of the people. Berkoff even had the nerve to pronounce that Kray had provided "a mythic service in a dull dreary post-war environment". But what's worse was that the news chose to broadcast such tosh. Berkoff just stopped short of the famous Monty Python sketch parodying such idiot adulation: "But they was gentlemen, mind. They would nail your head to the floor right? But they was always clean and they always treated their old mum like the duchess she were."

Anyway, despite the rather witty dissent of Lord Justice Millett ("it is a popular belief for the truth of which I am unable to vouch that ugly men are particularly attractive to women"), the gangster-admiring (but tolerably handsome) Berkoff won and Burchill lost. Before then it had been generally assumed that saying someone was ugly did not tend to lower them in the esteem of right-thinking members of society. Afterwards, hmm, depends on the context, be careful. Robertson & Nicol say that Article 10 of the Human Rights Act might change things, but for the time being Berkoff v. Burchill is still a precedent.

Victory for Berkoff, then.

Only... the information that someone wrote that Steven Berkoff was "hideously ugly" is in every book on modern British tort law. It did set a precedent, after all. Since courts all over the Anglosphere refer to each other's judgements, I would imagine it is also cited in Australian, Canadian, South African, Indian, New Zealand, West Indian and some American books of law. Law students will learn about it for for decades. Maybe even centuries.

ADDED LATER: The news of the death of Slobodan Milosevic made me regret being so harsh on a mere actor. To praise a killer, torturer and extortioner for providing an interesting show, as if Kray's victims were not real, was shameful behaviour on Berkoff's part. But if I'm going to describe Berkoff's behaviour as "hideously ugly", as I originally did, what words are left for an actual killer? So I've toned down the post above. I still think that it's a hoot that the end result of Berkoff's libel victory has been to propagate the two words concerned to the ends of the earth and set them on course to outlive his dramatic accomplishments as claims to fame.