Panned by reviewer, then told to go bankrupt

A British composer was told to go bankrupt yesterday after he unsuccessfully tried to sue the London Evening Standard for libel. Keith Burstein ran up legal costs of £67,000 defending a test-case libel action against Associated Newspapers, publishers of the Standard, over a critical review of one of his operas.

He told Chief Registrar Stephen Baister in the Royal Courts of Justice that he was taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights. The registrar said Mr Burstein was entitled to take the case in Europe but he was required to pay the legal costs already run up. This would entail complying with a court order against him by paying the £67,000.

When Mr Burstein told the registrar he could not pay, Mr Baister replied: "Then you go bankrupt." He added that, in balancing the rights of Associated Newspapers against the speculative nature of what Mr Burstein was hoping to do, it was proper to rule on the side of the newspaper group, which also publishes the Daily Mail, in forcing him to pay legal costs.

Mr Burstein, 51, confirmed that he would not be able to pay. He is working on a new symphony for the South Bank Symphonia and on an opera with Ben Okri, the Booker Prize winner. "I lead a rather simple life and don't have many material possessions," he said later.

"But I see this ongoing process as a fight I had to take on, having been incriminated by the initial allegation of glorification. This has no effect on the application to the European Court of Human Rights, which is pending. I will fight all the way in defence of everyone's civil liberty to freedom of thought and expression. There is something really rather sinister in a democracy about a newspaper group forcing an artist to go bankrupt."

The libel action concerned Mr Burstein's opera, Manifest Destiny, performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2005. The critic Veronica Lee wrote in the Standard: "I found the tone depressingly anti-American, and the idea that there is anything heroic about suicide bombers is, frankly, a grievous insult". Mr Burstein said that readers would have reason to think him a terrorist sympathiser who "applauds the action of suicide bombers and raises them to the level of heroism".

The High Court initially ruled that the case should go before a jury but that was overturned by the Appeal Court. That court's ruling was widely interpreted as a landmark decision in respect of the right of journalists to write scornful reviews.

Lord Justice Waller, who had seen the opera, described it as "plainly anti-American... it deals with matters upon which strong opinions could be legitimately held". Mr Burstein reiterated his desire to be tried in front of a jury, claiming that the "privileges and responsibilities of free speech had been abused."

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