Berkoff v Burchill and and Times Newspapers Limited: CA 31 Jul 1996

The plaintiff actor said that an article by the defendant labelling him ugly was defamatory. The defendant denied that the words were defamatory.
Held: It is for the jury to decide in what context the words complained of were used and whether they were defamatory in those circumstances. An allegation that an actor was hideously ugly was capable of being defamatory of him on the grounds it exposed him to ridicule.
Neill LJ said ‘It is necessary in some cases to consider the occupation of the plaintiff.’ and ‘It will be seen from this collection of definitions that words may be defamatory, even though they neither impute disgraceful conduct to the plaintiff nor any lack of skill or efficiency in the conduct of his trade or business or professional activity, if they hold him up to contempt scorn or ridicule or tend to exclude him from society. On the other hand insults which do not diminish a man’s standing among other people do not found an action or libel or slander. The exact borderline may often be difficult to define . . the word ‘reputation’, by its association with phrases such as ‘business reputation’, ‘professional reputation’ or ‘reputation for honesty’, may obscure the fact that in this context the word is to be interpreted in a broad sense as comprehending all aspects of a person’s standing in the community. A man who is held up as a figure of fun may be defeated in his claim for damages, for example, by a plea of fair comment, or, if he succeeds on liability, the compensation which he receives from a jury may be very small. But nevertheless the publication of which he complains may be defamatory of him because it affects in an adverse manner the attitude of other people towards him . . one has to consider the words in the surroundings in which they appear . . It is trite law that the meaning of words in a libel action is determined by the reaction of the ordinary reader and not by the intention of the publisher, but the perceived intention of the publisher may colour the meaning. In the present case it would, in my view, be open to a jury to conclude that in the context the remarks about Mr Berkoff gave the impression that he was not merely physically unattractive in appearance but actually repulsive. It seems to me that to say this of someone in the public eye who makes his living, in part at least, as an actor, is capable of lowering his standing in the estimation of the public and of making him an object of ridicule’.
Lord Millett, dissenting in the result, said that ‘it is one thing to ridicule a man; it is another to expose him to ridicule’.


Neill LJ, Millett LJ, Phillips LJ


Times 09-Aug-1996, [1996] EWCA Civ 564, [1996] 4 All ER 1008


England and Wales


CitedParmiter v Coupland And Another 1840
In an action for libel, the Judge is not bound to state to the jury, as matter of law, whether the publication complained of be a libel or not ; but the proper course is for him to define what is a libel in point of law, and to leave it to the jury . .
CitedDrummond-Jackson v British Medical Association CA 1970
The court considered whether an article published in the British Medical Journal was capable of bearing a meaning defamatory of the plaintiff dentist. The article made an attack upon the plaintiff’s technique for anaesthesia.
Held: Words may . .
CitedThe Capital and Counties Bank Limited v George Henty and Sons HL 1882
The defendant wrote to their customers saying ‘Henty and Sons hereby give notice that they will not receive in payment cheques drawn on any of the branches of the Capital and Counties Bank.’ The contents of the circular became known and there was a . .
CitedSim v Stretch HL 1936
Test For Defamatory Meaning
The plaintiff complained that the defendant had written in a telegram to accuse him of enticing away a servant. The House considered the process of deciding whether words were defamatory.
Held: The telegram was incapable of bearing a . .
CitedScott v Sampson QBD 1882
The court explained why evidence of particular acts of misconduct on the part of the Plaintiff tending to show his character and disposition should be excluded, saying ‘Both principle and authority seems equally against its admission. It would give . .
CitedYoussoupoff v MGM Pictures CA 1934
The plaintiff (herself a Princess) complained that she could be identified with the character Princess Natasha in the film ‘Rasputin, the Mad Monk’. On the basis that the film suggested that, by reason of her identification with ‘Princess Natasha’, . .
CitedTournier v National Provincial and Union Bank of England CA 1924
The court considered the duty of confidentiality owed by a banker to his client. Bankes LJ said: ‘At the present day I think it may be asserted with confidence that the duty is a legal one arising out of contract, and that the duty is not absolute . .

Cited by:

CitedDee v Telegraph Media Group Ltd QBD 28-Apr-2010
The newspaper sought summary judgment in its defence of the defamation claim. The article labelled the claimant as the world’s worst professional tennis player. The paper said he had no prospect of succeeding once the second article in the same . .
CitedThornton v Telegraph Media Group Ltd QBD 16-Jun-2010
The claimant said that a review of her book was defamatory and a malicious falsehood. The defendant now sought summary judgment or a ruling as to the meaning of the words complained of.
Held: The application for summary judgment succeeded. The . .
CitedUppal v Endemol UK Ltd and Others QBD 9-Apr-2014
The claimant alleged defamation by other contestants at the time when she was participating in the defendants’ TV show, Big Brother. The defendants had broadcast the material. The defendant now sought a ruling that the words complained of were not . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Updated: 31 October 2022; Ref: scu.78355