‘Whatever is funny is subversive, every joke is ultimately a custard pie,’ wrote Orwell. He must have foreseen the recent exchange of limp jokes-turned-nasty between Harrods’ controversial proprietor Mohammed al Fayed and that normally solemn recorder of capitalist cavortings, the Wall Street Journal.
Al Fayed’s custard pie was a hoax Harrods’ press release timed to coincide with April Fool’s Day 2002. This announced that he planned an IPO for the world’s best known department store and referred those wanting further information to a press officer named Loof Lirpa – a classic mirrored press pseudonym for April 1 spoofs.
The WSJ decided to pick-up and run with the joke, albeit with a ton of lead ballast. In response to the release, it published an article headlined ‘The Enron of Britain?’ which opined that investors in the IPO would be “wise to question [Harrods] every disclosure”.
Splat! went the custard pie right across al Fayed’s laugh-lined features. But chortling was there none within Harrods’ deep-pile corporate environs, and only the scurrying of lawyers disturbed the ominous silence with which the WSJ’s ‘joke’ was received.
“Quite scandalous,” inveighed the legal eagles, that the WSJ should compare Harrods with the infamous fraud-ridden American energy colossus, and demanded an apology forthwith from publisher Dow Jones. This was not forthcoming and a lawsuit promptly followed.
The British civil justice system moved with its customary lightning rapidity, a mere thirteen months elapsing between the alleged libel and an initial High Court hearing last week.
Lawyers for Dow Jones argued that a UK court had no jurisdiction in the matter as the article appeared only in the WSJ's US edition, just ten copies of which reached Albion’s shores.
Al Fayed’s legal legions, however, pointed out to the judge that the article also appeared in the online version of the newspaper and therefore had a much wider airing in the UK. M’Lud agreed with this argument, to the chagrin of Dow Jones.
“We’re disappointed that the judge reached this decision in this case, which has been going on for a year,” it huffed. “We believe this illustrates why the courts should take a serious look at this kind of forum shopping by libel plaintiffs.”
M’Lud (a Mr Justice Eady) urged the warring factions to reach a “sensible compromise” before legal costs escalated. This good advice was greeted by a low-key but anguished keening from the lawyers’ benches.
Data sourced from: BrandRepublic (UK); additional content by WARC staff