M-Net knew Gareth Cliff’s value as an Idols judge was his ability to provoke and shock, the High Court in Johannesburg ruled on Friday.
“It cannot be ignored that Cliff’s value as an Idols judge has been his tendency to shock and provoke, an image that M-Net has apparently supported, or certainly overlooked, until now,” Judge Caroline Nicholls said in her ruling.
M-Net’s lawyer, Wim Trengove argued in court on Tuesday that the channel did not want to be associated with a “posterboy for racism.” He said the Idols judges were hired to entertain, not to shock and offend.
Nicholls however, ruled on Friday that the channel give Cliff interim relief and put him back on the show, which was scheduled to start its pre-auditions on Saturday.
Nicholls said M-Net had failed to prove that the Idols brand would suffer if Cliff was temporarily reinstated.
Cliff’s image however would be affected, said Nicholls.
“A defamation action in due course or even a declaration of the unconstitutionality of M-Net’s termination of Cliff’s contract will not address the reputational damage that Cliff is suffering at present,” she said.
Cliff was fired from the show after he commented on KwaZulu-Natal realtor Penny Sparrow’s Facebook post in which she called black people monkeys. Cliff tweeted: “People really don’t understand free speech at all”.
At the time of his dismissal, M-Net said it did not believe Cliff was a racist, “but his response showed a lack of empathy for our history and it is important to differentiate between freedom of speech and hate speech”.
Nicholls said Cliff’s case was divided into two parts. The first was his request to be urgently re-instated before pre-auditions started.
The second involved his permanent reinstatement to the 2016 show, future renewals of his contract, and a demand for R25 million in damages for what he said were M-Net’s harmful comments.
Her verdict related to only the first part of Cliff’s case. It was not immediately clear when the second aspect would be dealt with.Nicholls said she had to establish whether there was a binding contractual agreement between Cliff and M-Net. M-Net denied there was.
Cliff submitted e-mails between himself and the show’s producers in which they discussed his payment increase and told him he would get his contract later. This was how things were done in previous years.
“I am of the view that the communication between the parties, as well as their conduct, is supportive of Cliff’s contention that a contractual relationship between M-Net and Cliff existed. He has therefore made out a prima facie case for temporary re-instatement.”
It was unclear whether M-Net would appeal the judgment. The channel’s representatives could not be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.
Cliff, who was happy about his reinstatement, said he and his lawyers would study the judgment and brief media on Saturday.
M-Net was ordered to pay Cliff’s legal fees.