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Thursday, 25 November, 1999, 12:25 GMT
Only joking: When having a laugh ends up in court
They thinki it's all over panel
They think it's all over... it is, in court
As Olympic athlete Fatima Whitbread has proved with her libel victory over the BBC comedy quiz They Think It's All Over - she who laughs last, laughs loudest.

Should you become the butt of the joke on one of the growing number of satirical panel games, you could be laughing all the way to the bank if you sue for libel.

To win at court you have to convince a jury that your comic tormentors have lowered your reputation in the eyes of society at large or made you an object of hatred, ridicule or contempt.

Judges: A tough audience for comedians
Martin Soames of London law firm Biddle says that satirists and comedians, however funny their material, can find the courtroom a tough venue to play.

"Technically there's no defence that it was only meant as a joke. It might not seem half as funny in front of a crusty old judge."

To beat the rap, a libel defendant has to prove that their comments had no "sting" - or defamatory content.

They can do this by proving what they said was true. With satire and comedy - which often rely on exaggeration - this is sometimes difficult.

Satire can also be covered by "qualified privilege" - although this is usually more applicable to journalists.

The concept allows for certain factual errors, provided the comments were intended to report on issues of vital public interest.

"The general way in which satire would be defended is as comment," says Martin Soames.

A "fair comment" defence attempts to show that although not a fact, an opinion was aired with no malicious motive.

"This sounds great as a defence, but it is so complex," warns Mr Soames.

Angus Deayton - 'allegedly'
To win, lawyers must ensure the jury understands this difficult legal concept and in what context a libellous comment must be viewed.

The jury has to decide what meaning an ordinary viewer or reader would take from a comment, and as Mr Soames notes: "This is highly variable."

So should would-be satirists use Angus Deayton's trick on BBC Two's Have I Got News For You - saying "allegedly" after anything dodgy? Well, no.

"It just gives you a bit of distance - but it doesn't give you protection," advises Soames. The makers of Have I Got News For You - no strangers to libel writs - can testify to this.

English libel laws have gained a reputation around the world for favouring those bringing libel actions, or at least placing the onus on defendants to prove their innocence.

Larry Flynt: Won in the Supreme Court
In the United States porn tycoon Larry Flynt won a Supreme Court test case in the 1980s - arguing that satire was protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The Hustler boss said his right to free speech allowed him to publish a spoof advert of TV evangelist Jerry Falwell alleging he had lost his virginity to his mother.

English law contains no such freedom of speech provision - although freedom of expression clauses in European human rights law are beginning to have more of an effect on rulings.

David Price, a lawyer who has acted for a number of high-profile satirical publications and TV shows, says there are risks in taking satirists before a judge.

"It's not a good idea to sue over a humorous piece. You look like you're taking yourself too seriously and you can get yourself laughed out of court."

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23 Nov 99 | UK
Fatima joke proves costly
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