Full case report
Begg v BBC
Reference  EWHC 2688 (QB)
Court High Court of Justice, Queen's Bench Division
Judge Haddon-Cave J
Date of Judgment 28 Oct 2016
Libel – Justification – Meaning – Broadcasting – Islam – Extremism
The C was the Chief Imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre and claimed damages against the D, the BBC, for libel after D broadcast the following words spoken by the television presenter Andrew Neil on the programme Sunday Politics: “…The East London Mosque… it’s also the venue for a number of extremist speakers and speakers who espouse extremist positions. This year Shakeel Begg, he spoke there and hailed jihad as “the greatest of deeds”. The D accepted that the words complained of were defamatory of C but disputed C’s pleaded meaning, putting forward their own alternative formulation.
The D asserted a defence of justification to the words complained of and relied on nine speeches and statements between 2006 – 2011 in which the D stated the C espoused extreme views and praised jihad. The C advanced a positive case that he had always been against extremism, citing his inter-faith and community work.
(1) What do the words complained of mean?
(2) Are they substantially true in those meanings?
(3) If not, what remedies ought to be granted?
(1) The words complained of meant that: (1) The C is an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions; and (2) the C had recently promoted and encouraged religious violence by telling Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed.
(2) The principles in determining the meaning of previous statements and speeches which are material to the D’s defence of justification are as follows:
a) The single meaning rule for the determination of the meaning of the words complained of does not apply;
b) The test is “whether a section of the audience would reasonably take the words spoken to convey a particular message”; and
c) The principles outlined in Jeynes v News Magazine  EWCA Civ 130 on the determination of meaning are modified to conform with this different test.
(3) The court undertook a detailed, rigorous, and sophisticated theological, ideological and syntactical analysis of the speeches and statements to aid in a proper understanding of their true meaning and compare those meanings with ten archetypical propositions that represent an extremist Islamic viewpoint.
(4) Of the nine speeches and statements the D relied on in support of its defence of justification six represented examples of the C espousing extremist Islamic positions. The D asked the court not to place too much weight on two others and the court found that although the ninth: “is not it itself evidence of extremism, the LIC letter nevertheless re-enforced the picture of Mr Begg as someone who expresses intemperate views”.
(5) Taken together, the C’s speeches and statements represented an: “overwhelming case of justification”. Accordingly, the D had succeeded in its defence in that the words complained of were substantially true. The substantial truth of the words complained of was not affected by two errors contained in the D’s broadcast, the substance of the charges against C remained true.
(6) Obiter: As the claim did not succeed no remedies were available to C, although if the defence of justification was not made out on the evidence the damages available would have been nil or nominal due to the C’s: “reckless and irresponsible use of language”.
There is limited case law on the issue of the meaning of statements relied on in support of a defence of justification (now, truth under section 2 Defamation Act 2013). The judge’s modifications to existing principles to formulate an appropriate test based on a “section” of the audience will need more judicial determination before the exact boundaries are clear.
In order to hold that any of C’s statements represented an extremist Islamic position, the court undertook the mammoth task of a doctrinal analysis on one of the world’s major religions to determine what is or is not an ‘extreme’ view within the jurisdiction. The Supreme Court stated in Shergill v Khaira  UKSC 33 at  that issues of disputed doctrine were justiciable if they reference civil interests. In this case, the court heard from two expert witnesses and the judge read both the Koran and Sayyid Qutb’s book “Milestones.” The judge largely accepted the version of Islam as put forward by the expert witness for the D and constructed the ten propositions that created the prism in which to view the meaning of C’s speeches and statements. This extensive and detailed approach on all nine speeches and statements was conducted while the judge found that the Deviant Group Speech (2009) was on its own sufficient to make out the defence.
Interestingly the judge did not outright reject the C’s positive case, but used it to conclude that the C was a “Jekyll & Hyde” character who disposed of his “cloak of respectability and revealed the horns of extremism.”
Rahman Lowe for C; BBC Litigation Department for D
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