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Last Updated: Friday, 9 February 2007, 17:30 GMT
Reviewer libel 'hard to stomach'
The Irish News building
The Irish News says it intends to launch an appeal
A legal action which saw the Irish News ordered to pay out 25,000 has profound implications for journalists, the editor of a rival paper has claimed.

Belfast Telegraph editor Martin Lindsay said it had "sent a shockwave through the newspaper industry" in N Ireland.

A jury found an August 2000 review of a west Belfast restaurant was defamatory. The Irish News intends to appeal.

The review criticised the quality of food and drink, the staff and the smoky atmosphere in the Kennedy Way premises.

Mr Lindsay said that criticism in such reviews must always be "constructive".

"Reviews are an essential ingredient of every newspaper, and they are a readers' service - we advise people on the best places to eat, and of course, the best places to avoid," he said.

I suppose this particular case is going to have a bit of a chilling effect on restaurant reviewers, certainly in Northern Ireland and perhaps more widely
Joshua Rosenberg
Daily Telegraph legal editor
Critic and broadcaster Matthew Sweet said it "sets a rather dangerous precedent".

"As long as you're factually correct, there should be no limits on what you're allowed to say - if you've had a terrible meal or saw a bad play, then you have every right to share that with your readers," he said.

"Restaurant reviews are a slightly different case - you are very much more aware that what you write could have a powerful effect on somebody's livelihood.

"In the case of a film or a play, you have more of a sense when you're sitting there that whatever you write, that they can dust themselves off and start over again."

Available defences

In defence, Irish News lawyers had pleaded justification and fair comment.

Daily Telegraph legal editor Joshua Rosenberg said the case was a reminder of the limits of available defences to libel.

"Critics can sometimes take advantage of one of the defences to libel of justification, that is, if you can prove what you said was true," he said.

"Another one is fair comment - to establish that, you have to prove that your comment or opinion was based on fact, that those facts are true, that your opinion or comment was honest and that it was on a matter of public interest.

"There are limits to it - it's a pretty broad defence because freedom of speech is regarded as very important by the courts. On the other hand, if you go too far, you lose the right to that defence.

"I suppose this particular case is going to have a bit of a chilling effect on restaurant reviewers, certainly in Northern Ireland and perhaps more widely."

'Hatchet job'

The owner of Goodfellas Italian restaurant on Kennedy Way, Ciarnan Convery, had claimed the article was a "hatchet job".

His legal team claimed at Belfast High Court that the review was defamatory, damaging and hurtful and said the Irish News has failed to apologise or print a retraction.

Announcing the paper would launch an appeal, an Irish News spokesman said it raised "profound questions involving the freedom of the press".

"We firmly believe that newspapers must have the right to publish fair and honestly written reviews, contributed by experts in their particular field and engaging in either praise or criticism when it is justified," he said.


SEE ALSO
25K for food critic's poison pen
08 Feb 07 |  Northern Ireland



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