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Court Finds “Hideously Ugly” Defamatory

Autumn 1996

In articles published in The Sunday Times, Julie Burchill had described film directors “such as Stephen Berkoff” as “notoriously hideous looking people” and had described “the creature” from Frankenstein as “a lot like Stephen Berkoff, only marginally better looking”. When Mr Berkoff sued for libel, Ms Burchill and Times Newspapers Ltd applied for the proceedings to be dismissed on the grounds that to call a person “hideously ugly” was not capable of being defamatory.

In its majority judgment, the Court of Appeal held that words might be defamatory even though they neither imputed disgraceful conduct to the plaintiff nor any lack of skill or efficiency in the conduct of his business or profession, if they held him up to contempt, scorn or ridicule or tended to exclude him from society. Although insults which did not diminish a man's standing were not sufficient to found an action for libel or slander, the words used had to be considered in the light of all surrounding circumstances. It would be open to a jury to conclude that, in their context, the remarks about Mr Berkoff gave the impression that he was not merely physically unattractive in appearance but actually repulsive. To say that of someone in the public eye, such as an actor, was capable of lowering his standing in the estimation of the public and of making him an object of ridicule.

Lord Justice Millett dissented holding that Mr Berkoff's claim was as frivolous as Ms Burchill's article.

Julie at Saltdean
from Paul Dacam, Computer Communications and Media