My favourite libel story concerns the actor, playwright and director, Steven Berkoff. In 1996 Berkoff successfully sued Julie Burchill of the Times after she wrote that Berkoff was “hideously ugly.”
In fact he’s not ugly at all. Berkoff’s action in going to the funeral of Reginald Kray and eulogising that sadistic criminal was ugly, but his face is OK. (…)
Anyway, despite the rather witty dissent of Lord Justice Millett (“it is a popular belief for the truth of which I am unable to vouch that ugly men are particularly attractive to women”), the gangster-admiring (but tolerably handsome) Berkoff won and Burchill lost. Before then it had been generally assumed that saying someone was ugly did not tend to lower them in the esteem of right-thinking members of society. Afterwards, hmm, depends on the context, be careful. Robertson & Nicol say that Article 10 of the Human Rights Act might change things, but for the time being Berkoff v. Burchill is still a precedent.
Victory for Berkoff, then.
Only… the information that someone wrote that Steven Berkoff was “hideously ugly” is in every book on modern British tort law. It did set a precedent, after all. Since courts all over the Anglosphere refer to each other’s judgements, I would imagine it is also cited in Australian, Canadian, South African, Indian, New Zealand, West Indian and some American books of law. Law students will learn about it for for decades. Maybe even centuries.
…it’s a hoot that the end result of Berkoff’s libel victory has been to propagate the two words concerned to the ends of the earth and set them on course to outlive his dramatic accomplishments as claims to fame.