It's Uncle Norris.

Colditz (1972-74)
Norris McWhirter
Spitting Image

Libel is a strange business. The traditional test for spotting one is whether or not the words that are written down or spoken bring a person into hatred, ridicule or contempt.

That can be a rather difficult one to call and more recent thinking has suggested that an approach better suited to modern life would really be to ’determine whether the words lower a person in the estimation of normal right thinking people.’

Could anything be simpler? Well, differential calculus or maybe the translation of ‘Serbo-Croat into Japanese quickly spring to mind.’ The history of libel cases show that a person can be libelled not only by the written or spoken word but also by certain images, themes and juxtaposition. The possibilities are simply endless and really in truth it’s all a bit of a minefield, not only by the general public but often by the judges and barristers and other people who make our laws. This is a subject that any legal strangeologist is more than happy to negotiate because oddities are almost guaranteed these days in our modern world.

Cosmos air Holidays v The BBC

There was a case in 1975 which involved Cosmos air Holidays v, The BBC.

For the BBC to tell their Holiday Programme viewers that some hotels that were used by Cosmos weren’t up to scratch might just have been bearable to the holiday company’s bosses but it was the accompanying music that really upset them, The Cosmos company eventually settled for several thousand pounds in an ‘out of court’ settlement – after all, how else could the television viewers interpret the opening music of the ‘Colditz television series.’

In this case there was ‘no escape’ for the BBC at any rate – it was libel by theme, literally.

Mr. Monson v Madame Tussaud’s

As for libel by juxtaposition, look no further than Mr. Monson, who, even as far back as 1894, was sufficiently litigation-aware to get himself all worked up about the waxwork of himself that Madame Tussaud’s placed in the anteroom of their ‘Chamber of Horrors’ exhibition. Monson had been tried for murder in a Scottish Court, it was true, but he had equally been acquitted by that peculiar Scottish verdict of  ‘Not Proven.’    Then to place his likeness next to those of convicted murderers just wasn’t on, he argued strongly, he won and was awarded the princely sum of ‘one farthing,’ for damages because in the Judge’s minds he had had his reputation sullied in such a way. Strange, yes but true.

Norris McWhirter v Independent Broadcasting Authority

There is another way to commit the offence of libel and that is by image. Next we relate to the star of the story, that of Norris McWhirter, the well-known editor of the famous ‘Guinness Book of Records.’ Maybe he was trying to get an entry into his own book for the shortest and possibly the most tenuous incidence of libel of all time. Maybe he’d just lost his sense of humour or even just ‘lost it. Full stop.

It all started with the television broadcast of a 1984 episode of a programme called ‘Spitting Image,’ a very popular programme and watched by millions of people. This was a serious of latex lampoonery through the medium of cruelly parodic puppetry has caused many a celebrity to fume, members of the government in particular. The good news for Norris was that he wasn’t on it, or was he?

The Times newspaper subsequently reported that Mr McWhirter, aged 59 had taken out an action for libel against the Independent Broadcasting Authority at Horsferry Road Magistrates court. Mr, McWhirter was very clear that he had seen a ‘grotesque and ridiculing image of my face superimposed on the top of a naked woman.’  It really doesn’t bear thinking about. He asserted that the broadcasting of the image was a criminal offence under the Broadcasting Act 1981, but not because of what it was – it was how long the image lasted that was the real bone of contention.

‘And just how long did it last?’ asked the Judge with due concern. Mr McWhirter’s reply was brief but not nearly as brief as the offending image,‘A quarter of one second, ‘was his stunning reply. The Judge stopped and looked at him fully expecting a different answer, I’m sure. Mr McWhirter’s contention was that the image had been broadcast subliminally, using the sort of technique that unscrupulous advertisers of political figures are said to employ to implant subconscious images and messages into the addled brains of the world’s ‘couch potatoes.’

 The High Court

This wasn’t the sort of case to be decided in the blink of an eyelid and so it was off to the High Court. The case commenced on Thursday 30th January 1986, where Lord Justice Lloyd, sitting in the Queen’s Bench Divisional Court, together with Mr. Justice Skinner, held Norris McWhirter’s reputation in their hands. It was Lord Justice Lloyd who asked the first question, that any person in the street might have asked, such as ‘If the image was only on the screen for a quarter of a second, how did you see it?’

This is where the evidence of Mr McWhirter’s fifteen year old nephew came into his own.’ He was watching the programme on video using the slow motion button said Mr. McWhirter and when he used the freeze-frame’ button, he suddenly shouted out ‘Look, there is Uncle Norris!’

Unconcerned as to why the young teenager should have been using the freeze-frame button in the first place (looking for naked women) Lord Justice Lloyd remained singularly unimpressed, although there appeared to be a flicker of a smile, The Judge looked at Mr McWhirter and quashed the summons straight away, prohibiting any further proceedings. The case was finished there and then.

Thus it was Norris McWhirter who failed to get into his Guinness book of Records and he was then left to bemoan the verdict. He left the court with an impassioned parting shot: ‘This is a matter of profound constitutional importance,’ he said ‘This brain-washing should be suppressed – these subliminal messages are totally deceitful and I want them stopped.’

Had there ever been an odder libel case? Well, I am still looking, but there is certainly a lesson that we can all learn from Uncle Norris. Now I know why I get those sudden urges to slip away from the television to visit my local. Ban those subliminal messages, I say. My waistline is thickening and I intend to sue.

Researched and written by David Rowland.

Special thanks.  The Law’s strangest cases by Peter Seddon.
Published in 2001 by Robson Books, London.

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