Full case report

Hunt v Times Newspapers Ltd (No. 5)

Reference [2013] EWHC 1868 (QB)
Court High Court, Queen's Bench Division

Judge Simon J

Date of Judgment 4 Jul 2013


Summary

Libel – justification – Reynolds Privilege – s.5 Defamation Act 1952


Facts

Investigative journalist Michael Gillard was employed by D and wrote an article under the headline “Underworld Kings Cash in on Taxpayer Land Fund”. It was accompanied by a photograph of C. The article referred to a £20m fund run by the London Development Authority which sought to acquire land for regeneration. It said that potential beneficiaries of the fund had been implicated in murder, drug-trafficking and fraud, and that these included C, described as a man “whose criminal network is allegedly so vast that Scotland Yard regards him as ‘too big’ to take on”. The article described his involvement in a dispute over the ownership of a piece of land which was subject to a compulsory purchase order, and said that C had seen two cases against him dropped because of problems with witnesses.

C pleaded three meanings: the first relating to the allegation that he was a “crime lord” controlling a network involved in murder, drug-trafficking and fraud; the second to his involvement in witness intimidation during a 1999 prosecution for violent assault; and  the third to his involvement in violence arising from the land dispute and subsequent witness intimidation. The D pleaded three very similar meanings, on the basis that the first was a Chase Level 1 meaning, and the second and third were Chase Level 2 meanings. The meanings were defended as true and as protected by Reynolds privilege.

The procedural history of the claim was complex. On 2 December 2010, 49 sub-paragraphs of the original plea of justification were struck out following a hearing before Tugendhat J. A separate action had been brought by the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis and SOCA against the Sunday Times and Mr Gillard to restrain them from relying on and disclosing documents said to have been handed to Mr Gillard in breach of confidence (The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis & Anor v Times Newspapers Ltd & Anor [2011] EWHC 1566 (QB)). Two judgments were handed down which restricted the use D could make of leaked documents in this action. D served an amended defence and C again applied to strike out the pleading, Eady J permitting D to rely on some of the Particulars of justification and the Reynolds defence (Hunt v. Times Newspapers Ltd (No.1) [2012] EWHC 110 QB). Some of D’s reformulated defence was then allowed by Eady J (Hunt v Times Newspapers Ltd (No. 2) [2012] EWHC 1220 (QB)). On the first day of trial D was allowed to add new particulars to the plea of justification (Hunt v. Times Newspapers Ltd (No.3) [2013] EWHC 1090 QB).

D relied on s.5 of the Defamation Act 1952.


Issue

(1) Were the three meanings found in D’s article true?

(2) Was the publication protected by Reynolds privilege?


Held

Giving judgment for the Defendant:

(1) As to the second meaning, C was responsible for a violent assault on a victim who subsequently withdrew his statement. There were sufficient facts to prove the truth of the meaning and to satisfy the J that there were reasonable grounds to suspect it.

As to the third meaning, D proved that C threatened the party to the property dispute and orchestrated an attack on him. The J also found, although less certainly, that C avoided prosecution through intimidation of a witness. He concluded in any event that there were reasonably grounds to suspect C of acting in this way.

As to the first meaning, the J found that C was the head of an organised crime network who was implicated in extreme violence and fraud. However, he did not accept that involvement in murder and drug-trafficking were necessarily included in a general description of such an individual. These allegations were not exaggerations at the margins of the allegation, and D could not rely on s.5 of the 1952 Act .

(2) With regard to the Reynolds defence, firstly, it was a matter of public interest that criminals were being paid from public funds, and that a dispute over the land which entitled them to the payment had led to a violent turf war and large-scale police corruption enquiry. The status and involvement of C was central to the article.

Second, Mr Gillard, representing D, had behaved fairly and responsibly in gathering the information and in ensuring that what was published was accurate and fair. On the basis of both sources and documents, it was reasonable for Mr Gillard to describe C as he had done. The J was satisfied that he honestly believed the allegations were accurate and true and that it was his duty to write the article in its published form. While the way that comment was sought from C was not ideal, C, who the article said had declined to comment, would never have taken the opportunity to give the gist of his side of the story.  The defence succeeded in relation to the first meaning, and would also have provided a complete defence to the other two meanings if required.


Comment

The judgment contains a clear and comprehensive distillation of the key aspects of the Reynolds defence, which is to be abolished by s.4(6) of the Defamation Act 2013. The J considered the principles which emerge from the cases on the questions of the public interest and the responsibility of the journalist. He also usefully referred to three general points of interest which may guide the court in its assessment of whether or not the defence is made out.

Firstly, he outlined the tension between the public interest in publishing the information and that in preventing the dissemination of defamatory allegations. Second, he noted that the ‘single meaning’ rule in libel does not apply with the same rigidity in a Reynolds case, citing the observations of Lord Phillips, Lord Brown and Lord Mance in Flood. Third, he referred to the fact that the Reynolds principles are not hard-edged, the weight to be accorded to relevant factors varying from case to case. These points demonstrate the inherently unpredictable and fluid nature of the defence’s application, in spite of its now fairly extensive elucidation in the cases.


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Instructing Solicitors

Hughmans for C, Simons Muirhead and Burton for D