The “Lazy” Libel Lawsuit – Blog Assignment #9

Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet was recently awarded approximately $40,000 in damages after winning a libel suit against the UK Daily Mail.

Kate sued the British tabloid’s owner Associated Newspapers over allegations from a January, 2009 article titled “Should Kate Winslet win an Oscar for the world’s most irritating actress?” claiming that she publicly lied about her exercise regimen.

The article written by Liz Jones (which is no longer available on the UK Daily Mail‘s site but can be found archived in full on BNET) accused Ms. Winslet of under-reporting on her fight to stay fit during her awards-season red carpet runs last winter:

There is no way Kate despite her protestations the other day that: ‘As long as all of this is going on, I have stopped exercising and am eating whatever I want. That [exercise] has gone out the window for now because I haven’t got time what with awards ceremonies and film premieres’, or that it is her Narciso Rodriguez gowns that nip her in and push her up in all the right places has not worked supremely, vomit-inducingly hard to get the figure she has today.

I can see the fact she has ‘gone for the burn’ etched on her woefully drawn features. She might say it is down to 20 minutes of gentle Pilates a day but, trust me, it ain’t. I’ve done that amount of Pilates for years and I do not have anything approaching Ms Winslet’s enviable muscle tone.

Winslet, who has frequently and publicly denounced Hollywood pressures to maintain a certain body type, explained to Reuters the basis for her libel suit:

“I was particularly upset to be accused of lying about my exercise regime and felt that I had a responsibility to request an apology in order to demonstrate my commitment to the views that I have always expressed about body issues, including diet and exercise.

“I strongly believe that women should be encouraged to accept themselves as they are, so to suggest that I was lying was an unacceptable accusation of hypocrisy.”

The Daily Mail ran the story three weeks before Winslet snagged a Best Actress Oscar statuette for her role in the WWII drama The Reader. She had already been making the red carpet rounds both for that performance and for another highly-regarded turn in the 1950s Americana suburban drama Revolutionary Road.

Kate Winslet in The Reader, for which she won several awards including the Academy Award for Best Actress.

In a nutshell, Kate Winslet was repeatedly quoted as saying that she had not been dieting or exercising much during the busy awards season. Liz Jones wrote in the Daily Mail that Winslet must be lying because she looked to be in great shape.

It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Winslet sued the Daily Mail because they questioned her own claims that she was lazy, alleging instead that she indeed had been working hard to stay in shape. This might seem like a frivolous lawsuit, but it was potentially quite injurious to Winslet’s image.

Winslet, who often encourages women to love their bodies as they are, worried that the article, if taken as truth, would make her seem like a hypocrite: telling women to love their bodies while striving to make her own as perfect as possible. She filed the suit not to collect damages ($40,000 is pocket change for the highly-paid actress), but to force the Daily Mail to detract the claims, allowing her to maintain credibility in her message to women.

The tabloid immediately accepted the charge and could offer no defense. PR-CANADA.net reported that the suit set a “legal precedent”:

This decision clarifies that in Offer of Amends situations, claimants, in this instance Miss Winslet, have the right to appropriate vindication through the process of a Statement in Open Court.

I haven’t the faintest idea what that means. I speak a few languages, and legal jargon is not one of them. What I do understand is that the outcome of the suit will make it easier for celebrities to file and receive compensation for libel cases in British court. I think this is a positive and important development in the legal system.

Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, for which she won several awards including a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama.

Celebrities are in the spotlight of the entertainment news media, and many believe that they should learn to take the good with the bad: to ignore negative and false stories because “any press is good press,” or because it’s “part of being famous.” But celebrities are people, who deserve honest representation, and also, in a sense, commodities, that typically have vast commercial interests riding on their reputations.

The media cannot be given free reign to write about celebrities as they please. Barriers need to be in play to prevent them from creating false messages: scandalous headlines might amass a larger readership, but these messages can be very damaging to prominent figures and the businesses built around them.

Any widely-disseminated media message has an inherent responsibility to inform the public in a truthful way. If a media outlet purposefully produces a false message, they need to acknowledge the mistake and compensate any damaged parties. The media are too powerful not to be held to this standard.

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~ by Adam Mehring on November 23, 2009.

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