Elton John sues the Times for Libel

Adding to Murdoch’s woes, the singer sues the media mogul’s flagship paper for libel. Peter Jukes reports.

08.08.12 7:04 PM ET

Rupert Murdoch’s luck in London seems have run out. After some 70 arrests associated with phone hacking and police bribes at his leading tabloid papers, the now defunct News of the World and the best-selling daily Sun, his flagship paper, The Times, now seem set to face an expensive legal battle with the singer Sir Elton John.

Elton John’s attorney, William McCormick from law firm Carter Ruck, has lodged papers in the High Court alleging two Times articles were defamatory and caused “severe damage to his reputation and personal distress and embarrassment.”

Headlined "How Movie Millions are Moved Offshore" the stories in question were published in The Times six weeks ago and claimed to explore “the secrets of tax avoiders” through film financing partnerships. They alleged that investment companies had exploited loopholes in U.K. tax law to help wealthy clients avoid tax, and The Times named several celebrities who had benefitted from the schemes, including the comedian Jimmy Carr, who apologized via Twitter. Prime Minister David Cameron intervened and called the schemes—though legal— "morally wrong."

The original Times piece from June 21 also alleged that the CEO of Ingenious Media, Patrick McKenna—a major investor in live events as well as movies such as James Cameron’s Avatar—was Elton John’s accountant. The next day the paper published a correction stating that the McKenna had never been the singer’s accountant, and that Ingenious Media “do not offer schemes of this type and they have not been involved in moving money offshore to avoid tax."

However, the apology was deemed “wholly inadequate” by Elton John’s lawyers, who are now seeking damages to compensate for the “sense of insult and injury” to the singer’s reputation, especially his charity work.

This is not the first time that Murdoch’s U.K. subsidiary, News International, has been in legal conflict with Elton John. Twenty-five years ago the best-selling tabloid Sun published a false front page story about John’s contact with rent boys. In written evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics last year, the editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, defended his decision. “Basically my view was that if it sounded right it was probably right,” MacKenzie wrote, “and therefore we should lob it in.”

The paper had to pay nearly $2 million in damages four months after publication in 1987.  In oral evidence, MacKenzie admitted that his boss was not too pleased when receiving a fax of the legal settlement. “I received 40 minutes of abuse,” MacKenzie told Lord Justice Leveson. “It wasn't the money, it was the shadow it cast over the paper.”

The Elton John settlement cast a longer shadow than that, and cemented Britain’s reputation for punitive libel laws in which the burden of proof is on the publisher rather than the plaintiff.

Regarding the current story, a spokesperson from The Times told The Daily Beast: “We published a clear correction the following day. We have also lodged an application with the court to determine whether or not the article is defamatory.”