The notorious British newspaper, The Daily Mail, has been forced to eat humble pie and swallow their many misinformed and inflammatory words as J K Rowling has triumphed over them in a recent defamation case. The tabloid, renowned for their gossip pages, published a story about the Harry Potter author in September 2013 questioning the legitimacy of the writer’s so called “sob story” concerning her reflections on being a single mother. Rowling then sued the paper for damages in January of this year and the Daily Mail has now been forced to issue a public apology as well as paying a significant amount of compensation to the author, the bulk of which they note she is donating to charity.
The story in question entitled, “How JK’s sob story about her past as a single mother has left the churchgoers who cared for her upset and bewildered” which the Daily Mail ran, claimed that Rowling had unfairly criticized church attendees in her area and that she falsely stated they had stigmatized and made fun of her for her single parent status. It was supposedly printed in response to a blog post the author herself had published on a single parents website called Gingerbread. In the blog she talked about her time as a single parent and included a few lines about an experience she had with one member of the church where she used to work part time. A lady who attended the church had apparently referred to the future author repeatedly as the “unmarried mother”, a description which both amused and mildly offended the younger Rowling. Although the author dedicated only a few sentences to this anecdote and did not overtly criticize the person in question, let alone the church going community as a whole, the Daily Mail somehow managed to spin an entire tale out a couple of lines.
As a result Rowling took them to court claiming that their article was misleading and based on an incorrect “picture” of her own piece of work for Gingerbread. Contrary to their statements she had not referred to more than one person at the church. Furthermore, the person in question was neither “bewildered” or “upset” as Rowling did not actually confront her about the incident. She also added that the story had directly impacted her reputation and caused her undue humiliation and distress. The Daily Mail admitted liability in late January of 2014 and have since issued a two page apology, although it is yet to be made available online. In it they state that she did indeed only refer to one incident of being stigmatized by a church member and as a result the author’s article did not contain any false or unjustified views. While the Daily Mail do not exactly go out of their way to issue a profuse apology to Rowling, they do state that they have agreed to pay her both damages and some compensation towards her legal expenses – the least that should be expected in this sort of defamation dispute – making this a notable triumph over the lies that are often spread about high profile individuals.
Unfortunately there has been subsequent disputes between the two parties regarding the details of the agreement. The Daily Mail was apparently unhappy about the author or her lawyers making a statement without their permission about the case in court. Although no date has been marked for when Rowling might make this statement, a High Court judge ruled in April that there was no legitimate reason why the newspaper should oppose it taking place. Given that the author herself was not allowed an opportunity to comment on or dispute the allegations the Daily Mail initially made, instead merely being informed of the imminent publication of such a defamatory article, it seems perfectly fitting that she should be able to comment on the case without the permission of the newspaper. It might be too much to hope that the Daily Mail will learn from Rowling’s triumph over their pernicious tendencies and will attempt to be more stringent in controlling defamation in future, but at the very least it is satisfying that the truth about their practices and journalistic integrity is being laid bare for all to see.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion