Court 13 of the Royal Courts of Justice was, this last week, the venue for an unusual legal event: a High Court libel jury trial. The claim is being brought by comedian Frankie Boyle against MGN Ltd, publishers of the Daily Mirror, in respect of an allegation that he is a racist. MGN is defending the case on the basis that the allegation is true or that it was “honest comment”.
In recent years, libel jury trials have become extremely rare. In June 2012 a libel jury awarded Luke Cooper total damages of £60,000 against two newspapers. Before that, the last libel jury trial was in July 2009.
This trial began on Monday 15 October 2012 before Mr Justice Eady and jury of eight men and four women. Opening the case, counsel for Mr Boyle, David Sherborne, told the jury that a Daily Mirror article which started with the words “Racist comedian Frankie Boyle” was defamatory. He said that MGN had also defamed Mr Boyle by saying he had been “forced to quit” the BBC show Mock The Week.
Mr Sherborne said that Mr Boyle’s humour was “deliberately challenging” and he did not mind being criticised, but did object to being described as racist. Mr Boyle “actively campaigned” against racism and complained that the newspaper had “misunderstood” the context of the comedian’s language. He said that Mr Boyle was ridiculing racists when telling jokes — and expressing views of people he detests.
Mr Sherborne gave jurors an example of a joke about Britain’s involvement in foreign conflicts in which Mr Boyle answered a phone and said, “Department of Nigger Bombing”. Mr Sherborne said “context is everything” and argued that Mr Boyle had “clearly” not used the word “nigger” gratuitously.
Mr Sherborne said some of Mr Boyle’s humour was extremist and he had a thick skin.
“He would not have sued the defendant if he had been called ’tasteless’ and ‘offensive’. “But he was not. He was called ’racist’. That is a different matter and he will explain to you why it was so upsetting.”
Mr Ronald Thwaites QC, for MGN, argued that Mr Boyle was a “racist comedian” and said the newspaper would claim that its use of the word “racist” was a fair opinion. He said Mr Boyle used negative stereotyping of black people “usually in a sexual context”.
“What he has done is to take the negative stereotype of black people and exploit that for cheap laughs gratuitously … This is not part of some intellectual cause. This is not part of some clever message.”
Mr Thwaites told the jury that the MGN had selected “some stark examples of where he is racist in his comedy.”
On Tuesday 16 October 2012, Mr Boyle gave evidence. He said he has “actively campaigned” against racism and says the newspaper “misunderstood” the context of his use of language in jokes.
Jurors were today shown footage from the BBC satirical show “Mock The Week” in which Mr Boyle was part of a discussion about immigration. Mr Boyle said he was “pretending” to be someone with racist views during the discussion. He said that he “despises” people with such views and thought it “important” to mock them. Mr Boyle said
“I don’t think British people are racist. I think it is a top down thing. I think you have a lot of rich and Conservative people who control our country who are racist and their views trickle down through things like tabloid papers.”
On Wednesday 17 October 2012, Mr Boyle was cross-examined by Mr Thwaites for MGN. Mr Boyle denied “punctuating” material with racist references or making “gratuitous” use of black people. He said he was playing characters who were “dressed up”. He said
“These are phrases that a racist will use. There is no way they are an endorsement of racist terminology. It is the absolute opposite of that. If I dressed up as Godzilla, people would not accuse me of wanting to crush Tokyo myself.”
In his closing speech to the jury Mr Thwaites said that Mr Boyle’s claim should be dismissed. He said that
“He sets himself up as a man of principle. This man doesn’t have a sensitive bone in his body.“
Mr Thwaites said Boyle made money by telling “callous jokes” about “people who were suffering”. He added that if jurors thought Mr Boyle had been libelled they should show their “contempt” by awarding him 45p – the cover price of the Daily Mirror.
In his closing speech for Mr Boyle, Mr Sherborne told the jury that MGN had an “almost insurmountable hurdle to climb” in defending as true its description of Boyle as a “racist comedian”. He said that it would be “political correctness gone mad” if comedians were labelled racist when they used racial language in satirical routines or to demonstrate a particular message.
He said that Mr Boyle’s joke about Afghanistan – where the comedian impersonated a British newsreader and said: ““A bomb went off in Kandahar today, killing two British servicemen, three UN relief workers and a whole bunch of Pakis” – was a useful test case:
“This wasn’t racist. This wasn’t Mr Boyle gratuitously using racist language to get across his message. It was the exact opposite.“
He said that Mr Boyle brought the libel action “out of principle” and not to win damages.
The case continues on Monday 22 October 2012 when Mr Justice Eady will sum up to the jury which will then consider its verdict.