David Barclay loses libel case against obscure French playwright

The reclusive billionaire owner of the Daily Telegraph and the Ritz hotel has been ordered to pay damages to an obscure French playwright who wrote a play that satirised the lives of him and his twin brother.

Sir David Barclay unsuccessfully sued Hédi Tillette de Clermont-Tonnerre for defamation and invasion of privacy after the French author wrote a work entitled Two Brothers and the Lions, about the lives of two Britons “who become cold, selfish monsters in the heart of our democratic societies”.

At an earlier hearing, the prominent French lawyer Olivier Morice, who represented the playwright before a civil court in the French city of Caen, described the work as a “satirical fable on capitalism” and told Barclay’s lawyer: “You don’t have the courage to plead censorship but you are asking for the play to be banned.”

Barclay, who alongside his twin brother, Sir Frederick, is one of the richest men in Britain with a shared fortune of £8bn, claimed the production portrayed him unfairly. He has always fiercely protected his privacy while building up a business empire that includes the Spectator and the Yodel delivery company.

The brothers are famous for owning the Channel island of Brecqhou, where they have built a gothic-style castle, and their long-running dispute with many residents on the neighbouring island of Sark.

They have clashed with local politicians and other residents in the tiny crown dependency over the decades, while helping to abolish one of the world’s last remaining feudal systems. After successfully bringing democracy to the islands they subsequently closed down their businesses when voters failed to back their preferred candidates.

Clermont-Tonnerre acknowledged that his play, which does not mention the Barclays by name but features two wealthy Britons who live in a castle on Brecqhou, was partly inspired by the lives of the brothers.

But he defended his right to freedom of expression and said the play had been commissioned to explore the issues around the continued existence of medieval Norman law in the Channel Islands, while ruminating on the nature and future of capitalism.

Barclay had asked for €100,000 (£90,000) in damages for libel and violation of privacy and sought to have the work banned from being performed.

However, judges in France backed the playwright and theatres where the piece had been performed. “In the text, there are no facts revealed that were unknown, egregious, intimate or even imaginary and pejorative which are likely to constitute a particularly serious intrusion into [Barclay’s] life,” they said.

The court instead ordered Barclay, 85, to pay €6,000 in moral damages to the playwright, as well as €5,000 to each of the three theatre companies involved in producing the play for infringing their right to show the work. He was also ordered to pay €35,000 in legal costs.

Barclay’s lawyer has said he is likely to appeal against the ruling, which also requires him to pay to publish a statement announcing his defeat in four French newspapers and magazines.

Barclay and his twin brother have owned the Daily Telegraph since 2004. Their media outlets have backed Brexit and they held a party at the Ritz in honour of Nigel Farage to celebrate the 2016 EU referendum result.

Morice’s colleague Missiva Chermak-Felonneau said: “It has to be noticed that this well-reasoned decision is of critical importance for the freedom of artistic creation.”

The court case could become an example of the Streisand effect, inadvertently drawing attention to a previously obscure play which has been critically acclaimed but only played in small theatres. Further performances are scheduled for early 2020 in cities across France.

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