John Oliver wins case brought by ‘geri­atric Dr Evil’

The Timaru Herald - - WORLD -

UNITED STATES: In fair­ness, John Oliver didn’t de­vote the en­tirety of his episode on coal last June to skew­er­ing Robert Mur­ray, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of one of Amer­ica’s largest coal min­ing com­pa­nies.

The Last Week Tonight host spent the first half of the 24-minute seg­ment ex­plor­ing the in­dus­try’s de­cline and pok­ing holes at US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s nu­mer­ous prom­ises to bring coal jobs back.

Just af­ter the half­way point, though, Oliver went all in on Mur­ray, the founder of Cleve­land­based Mur­ray En­ergy Cor­po­ra­tion. He started by sug­gest­ing the coal ty­coon was ‘‘a geri­atric Dr Evil’’ – com­plete with side-by-side photo com­par­i­son – who ap­peared to be ‘‘on the same side as black lung’’ by do­ing away with reg­u­la­tions meant to safe­guard his work­ers.

Oliver also crit­i­cised Mur­ray for giv­ing a ‘‘bizarre’’ news con­fer­ence in the wake of a 2007 col­lapse at the Cran­dall Canyon coal mine in Utah. Mur­ray has claimed the ac­ci­dent, which killed six min­ers, had been caused by an earth­quake.

The Bri­tish co­me­dian ended his seg­ment last June by invit­ing ‘‘Mr Nut­ter­but­ter’’, a man in a gi­ant squir­rel suit, to the stage to ad­dress Mur­ray di­rectly.

The over­sized ro­dent was a nod to an (un­founded) in­dus­try joke that Mur­ray had be­gun op­er­at­ing his own mines be­cause a squir­rel had ad­vised him to. It was also a thumb­ing of the nose at the coal baron, who had sent Oliver a cease-and-de­sist let­ter when the show reached out for com­ment be­fore the seg­ment.

‘‘Hey, Bob,’’ the man in the squir­rel cos­tume told the cam­era. ‘‘Just wanted to say: If you’re plan- ning on su­ing, I do not have a bil­lion dol­lars. But I do have a cheque for three acorns and 18 cents.’’

Mr Nut­ter­but­ter then flipped a gi­ant white­board to re­veal a fake check made out to ‘‘Eat S..., Bob!’’.

Be­neath it, the cheque’s memo line read: ‘‘Kiss my a..!’’

‘‘Bob Mur­ray, I didn’t re­ally plan for so much of this piece to be about you, but you kind of forced my hand on that one,’’ Oliver said. ‘‘And I know you’re prob­a­bly go­ing to sue me over this. But, you know what? I stand by ev­ery­thing I said.’’

That was the end of the seg- ment, but only the be­gin­ning of a le­gal bat­tle that would un­fold off cam­era. True to form, Mur­ray – who has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing liti­gious and ‘‘volatile’’ at best – hit back with a defama­tion law­suit against Oliver, HBO and Time Warner days af­ter the coal episode aired.

A com­plaint filed in West Vir­ginia cir­cuit court ac­cused Oliver of at­tempt­ing to as­sas­si­nate Mur­ray’s char­ac­ter and rep­u­ta­tion.

‘‘Noth­ing has ever stressed him more than this vi­cious and un­truth­ful at­tack,’’ [the com­plaint] says, adding that Oliver’s seg­ment was an at­tempt to ad­vance ‘‘bi­ases against the coal in­dus­try’’ and ‘‘dis­dain for the coal-re­lated poli­cies of the Trump Ad­min­is­tra­tion’’.

When Oliver’s writ­ers con­tacted Mur­ray En­ergy for com­ment be­fore air­ing the seg­ment, the com­pany’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives warned them that they were us­ing out­dated in­for­ma­tion and dis­cred­ited re­ports to sup­port the show’s ar­gu­ments, ac­cord­ing to the com­plaint. Nev­er­the­less, it says, Oliver ig­nored other ma­te­ri­als Mur­ray En­ergy pro­vided that might have set him straight.

Mur­ray’s law­suit prompted the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union of West Vir­ginia to file an am­i­cus brief for the ages, with sec­tion ti­tles such as ‘‘The Ridicu­lous Case of Hand’’, ‘‘Any­one Can Legally Say ‘ Eat S..., Bob!’ ‘‘, and ‘‘All of John Oliver’s Speech Was Pro­tected by the First Amend­ment. You Can’t Sue Peo­ple for Be­ing Mean to You, Bob’’.

‘‘It is apt that one of the plain­tiff’s ob­jec­tions to the show is about a hu­man-sized squir­rell [sic] named Mr Nut­ter­but­ter, be­cause this case is nuts,’’ ACLU West Vir­ginia le­gal di­rec­tor Jamie Lynn Crofts wrote in the brief. ‘‘As a flamethrower him­self, Bob Mur­ray should not be shocked when his own fire oc­ca­sion­ally in­spires oth­ers to fire back ... The place to dis­agree on im­por­tant mat­ters of pub­lic con­cern is the court of pub­lic opin­ion, not United States District Court.’’

Crofts ar­gued that Mur­ray’s law­suit was ‘‘be­yond mer­it­less’’, since Oliver’s seg­ment was based on pub­licly avail­able doc­u­ments and rooted in satire. Last week, a judge agreed (al­beit us­ing more le­galese and less snark), and dis- missed the law­suit against Oliver, HBO and Time Warner.

Mur­ray En­ergy spokesman Gary Broad­bent blasted the dis­missal and said the com­pany planned to ap­peal the de­ci­sion.

‘‘This de­ci­sion con­tains ab­so­lutely no le­gal rea­son­ing what­so­ever, and in­stead blindly adopts the de­fen­dants’ deeply flawed ar­gu­ments,’’ Broad­bent said in an email. ‘‘This is a fla­grant dis­re­gard of the law, the facts, and the sub­stan­tial dam­ages in­ten­tion­ally in­flicted by the de­fen­dants. Clearly, this de­ci­sion is detri­men­tal to our em­ploy­ees, who rely on Mr Mur­ray and Mur­ray En­ergy for their con­tin­ued liveli­hoods, and to our lenders, cus­tomers, and sup­pli­ers who de­pend on our in­tegrity and per­for­mance.’’

On Sun­day’s episode of Last Week Tonight, Oliver ac­knowl­edged the judge’s dis­missal dur­ing the open­ing of the show, re­cap­ping the saga and re­strain­ing him­self from fully gloat­ing, inas­much as Oliver shows re­straint.

The au­di­ence cheered as Oliver cau­tioned that the de­ci­sion wasn’t fi­nal yet – at which point, Mr Nut­ter­but­ter ap­peared on the screen. ‘‘I’ve been ad­vised not to say much more for now,’’ Oliver said, ‘‘so I won’t, be­cause as I think we know, now is not the time for vic­tory laps ...’’

The squir­rel shook vig­or­ously.

‘‘... it’s not a time for gloat­ing ...’’ The squir­rel’s head shak­ing con­tin­ued.

‘‘... it’s not a time for say­ing, ‘Hey, we won,’ and just rub­bing it in the face of the per­son who lost over and over again ...’’

Here, Mr Nut­ter­but­ter held up a large sign that read: ‘‘Eat S..., Bob!’’ – Wash­ing­ton Post its head

PHOTO: HBO

John Oliver with ‘‘Mr Nut­ter­but­ter’’ dur­ing his item mock­ing US coal in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tive Robert Mur­ray - a nod to an un­founded joke that Mur­ray had be­gun op­er­at­ing his own mines be­cause a squir­rel had ad­vised him to.

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

Robert Mur­ray has had a case against co­me­dian John Oliver tossed out by a judge.

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