Who would have thought that restaurant reviews would turn out to be the vanguard of defamation law?
Recent results from the High Court in Belfast and the High Court of New South Wales in Oz suggest a disturbing trend.
In February, in Belfast, a jury found that a review of ‘Goodfellas Pizzeria’ that pointed out that the meat in a dish of squid was “a grey translucent colour”, the pate without flavour and the meal as a whole “very disappointing”, was defamatory, in the face of the defence of fair comment and justification. It appears that the finding of defamation covered opinion as well as factual statements. The pizzeria was awarded £25K.
The newspaper is pursuing an appeal, presumably on the basis that a Belfast jury can’t be expected to know what good food looks and tastes like.
Meanwhile, a review of Coco Roco restaurant in Sydney, Australia (now mercifully no more, judging by the menu) was found to be defamatory by the High Court, on appeal. (Worth reading the link for the review). Here the finding was of ‘business defamation’, where the test is whether the words are likely to cause injury to a person in the exercise of their trade or profession by suggesting unfitness or incompetence, rather than the personal form of lowering a person in the eyes of right-thinking members of the community.
This is an interim finding in the case, as the newspaper has still to submit a defence, but one would imagine that it only leaves the paper with justification, as the fair comment approach has been effectively ruled out.
That is surely a bit of a blow to critics in Oz. Any suggestion that someone is not very good at what they are doing would open up ‘business defamation’, as far as I can see. The crap chef, the bad writer, the agonisingly shrill pop singer, etc, can all leap up and point to the professional injury caused by the suggestion of their incompetence. Australia, land of the litigious mediocrity?
As someone who was once a professional critic (non food related), I suppose I am hardly neutral on this issue. But while ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything’ might be a good rule when meeting the putative in-laws for the first time, it is also a good way to kill a culture. Besides, sometimes Beauty and Pleasure themselves cry to the heavens for vengeance. I’m looking at you, Lloyd Webber…
[Edit. Thanks to Martin in the comments for pointing out Eoin O’Dell’s post on these cases. Well worth reading.]