Full case report
Johnston v League Publications Ltd
Reference  EWHC 874 (QB)
Court High Court (QBD)
Judge Sir David Eady
Date of Judgment 26 Mar 2014
Defamation- Preliminary Ruling- Meaning- Innuendo
C was the chairman of Barrow Raiders RLFC, a professional rugby league football club, from August 2008 to September 2011. The Third Defendant, Ned Catic, was a Barrow player. The First and Second Defendants were respectively the publisher of a journal known as the Rugby Leaguer & League Express and a freelance journalist who contributed regularly to the journal.
On 22 August 2011, the Rugby Leaguer published two articles written by D2 referring to C. The first article (“the Story”) related to D3 being suspended by the club and subsequently cleared by the police of any wrongdoing allegedly committed in the club’s offices. The second article (“the Interview”) was an interview with D3 about his experiences with Barrow, and specifically, of C’s management of the team. D3 gave a number of examples by way of illustration of C’s alleged misbehaviour as chairman.
C applied for a preliminary issue on meaning in relation to both the Story and the Interview, contending that the words complained of meant in their natural and ordinary meaning (among other things) that (i) C was guilty of making a malicious complaint to the police concerning D3 arising from his supposed conduct at the club’s offices; (ii) C had mistreated, harassed, and/or victimised D3 and (iii) that C had grossly mismanaged Barrow. C contended that the allegations of mismanagement were confined to mismanagement directly affecting man management and staff morale.
Furthermore, C pleaded a true innuendo meaning said to be borne by the Interview, to the effect that C was guilty of committing an offence or offences of misconduct under the Rugby Football League (“RFL”)’s Betting Code and Operational Rules in that he had sought to ensure that a player named Jamie Rooney be played in a match against another club because he had placed a bet on Rooney to score the most points in that match. In response, D1 and D2 advanced in their Defence an innuendo meaning to the effect that C had placed “a bet” in breach of the Betting Code and indicated that they intended to justify the Interview in that meaning. C objected to this plea on the ground that it related to a different innuendo from the one complained of by C.
The defamatory meanings to be attached to the articles complained of.
The words complained of bore a number of general and specific meanings defamatory of C:
The test for coming to a conclusion on either the actual meaning or the scope of possible defamatory meanings was that of the “ordinary reader” Slim v Daily Telegraph Ltd  2 QB 157 considered. This concept was wide enough to embrace, in cases such as the present, the readers of a specialist publication, who were likely to bring a degree of specialist background knowledge to their interpretation.
The words in the Story meant that C had told the police “a pack of lies” about D3’s behaviour at the club offices. That phrase could only convey the imputation that what C had told the police was known by him at the time to be false or exaggerated. Six allegations of specific examples of C’s behaviour towards D3 were also defamatory and characterised as factual rather than the expression of opinion or comment.
The Interview bore the general meaning that the Claimant was responsible for mismanagement, including financial mismanagement. The meanings conveyed by the Interview, both general and specific, were defamatory in that they reflected adversely either upon C’s competence as chairman of Barrow or upon his treatment of other people (in particular, employees and players). These defamatory imputations were factual in nature, rather than comment.
The innuendo meaning
Most readers of the publication would be persons with a specialist interest in and knowledge of rugby league. It was reasonable to suppose that a substantial proportion of those readers would have a good knowledge of the rules governing the sport, including the substance of the rules contained in the Betting Code which prohibited a bet on Jamie Rooney’s performance. Accordingly, C’s pleaded true innuendo meaning was upheld.
Noting that the role of the court did not extend at this stage to commenting on or ruling upon the scope of the D1 and D2’s plea of justification, Sir David Eady went on to consider the commentary in Gatley on Libel & Slander (12th edn) with reference to the rules governing the pleading and justification of legal innuendo meanings by defendants. He made the following (obiter) observations:
- The principle set out in paragraph 3.23 of Gatley was clear: a claimant who could show that the extrinsic facts were known to some of the readers would ex hypothesi have established a defamatory publication to them at least; whereas a defendant who could only show that some of the readers knew the extrinsic facts he prayed in aid would only ever be able to make out a partial defence of justification.
- D1 and D2 therefore had to go further than showing simply that a substantial proportion of readers – as had been pleaded in the amended defence – knew of the substance of the rules contained in the Betting Code. They would at some point have to satisfy the court that all readers had, at least, a general knowledge of the relevant rules.
- Although such a case was not currently pleaded by D1 and D2, it would not be appropriate to rule at this stage that their case of justification of a different innuendo from that complained of by C, as currently formulated, was untenable as a matter of law. The point had not been argued at the hearing.
This decision stands as another example in the general trend of Courts deciding meaning as a preliminary issue. Sir David Eady noted that such hearings were likely to become more common in the future, having regard to the recent removal of the (qualified) ‘right’ to a jury trial by section 11 of the Defamation Act 2013.
It is also worth noting that the Court did not rule out D1 and D2’s pleaded innuendo meaning. This suggests that it may be open to a defendant to justify words in a different innuendo meaning from the one complained of. Should a defendant wish to do so however, on Sir David Eady’s account of the law, it will be necessary for them to show that all persons to whom the words were published knew the intrinsic facts pleaded in support of that innuendo.
Heatons LLP for the Claimant, FrontRow Legal for the First and Second Defendants
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