Full case report

Mughal v Telegraph Media Group Ltd

Reference [2014] EWHC 1371 (QB)
Court High Court (QBD)

Judge Tugendhat J

Date of Judgment 7 May 2014


Summary

Defamation – meaning – political speech – ruling on meaning


Facts

C was the director of Tell Mama, an organisation which monitors attacks on Muslims in the UK. On 15 June 2013, D published an article in the Comment pages of the Daily Telegraph referring to the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby less than a month before. The article was headlined “Woolwich outrage: we are too weak to face up to the extremism in our midst”.

C issued defamation proceedings. The words complained of were:

“Much more important – from the point of view of the general public – you frequently find that Muslim groups like Tell Mama get taxpayers’ money (though, in its case, this is now coming to an end). You discover that leading figures of respectable officialdom share conference platforms with dubious groups. You learn that Muslim charities with blatantly political aims and Islamist links have been let off lightly by the Charity Commission. And you notice that many bigwigs in Muslim groups are decorated with public honours. Fiyaz Mughal, for example, who runs Tell Mama, has an OBE. Obviously it would be half-laughable, half-disgusting, if activists of the EDL were indulged in this way; yet they are, in fact, less extreme than some of those Muslims who are “.

The meanings which C attributed to these words were:

“4. In their natural and ordinary meaning… that C is a Muslim extremist.

 5. Further or alternatively, by way of innuendo…that C is:

(a)  more extremist in his views and actions than the far-right extremists who were activists within the English Defence League (“EDL”); and/or

(b)  a hypocrite, as he falsely portrays himself as an individual who is anti-extremist.”

The parties consented to an order that there be the trial of a preliminary issue in the action to determine the actual meaning of the words complained of. No defence was served by D, who submitted that no reasonable reader would attribute to the words complained of the meanings contended for by C, or any meaning defamatory of C.


Issue

  1. Did the words complained of bear the meanings pleaded by C?
  2. What defamatory meanings (if any) did the words complained of bear?

Held

Applying the principles on determining meaning set out in Jeynes v News Magazines Limited [2008] EWCA Civ 130, Tugendhat J held that the words complained of did not bear the meaning attributed to them by C, nor any other meaning defamatory of C:

Tugendhat J reiterated some well-known principles of law, namely that:

  1. Principle (6) of Jeynes required the court to take into account the type of newspaper or website in question and the characteristics of the individuals making up the likely readership. The Daily Telegraph was a broadsheet with an educated readership, interested in current affairs generally, and political issues in particular.
  2. There was little scope for restrictions on political speech or on debate on questions of public interests, Spiller v Joseph [2010] UKSC 53 at [77] and [78] referring to Hrico v Slovakia (2005) 41 EHRR 18 considered.

The article in question came within the scope of the second principle, which a court determining meaning had to pay regard to.

The words complained of did not identify C as one of those Muslims who, when a comparison was made with EDL, showed that activists of EDL were less extreme. What the reasonable reader would have understood was that, through Tell Mama, C had overstated two matters: (a) the extent to which violence against Muslims after the murders of Drummer Rigby was a backlash and (b) the position in equating ‘hate inspired by al-Qaeda’ with the ‘thuggery and hate of the EDL’.

The words complained of were part of a public debate clearly identified as comment, or the opinion of the author, to the effect that the views that C had expressed, and for which he had received public honours, were not violent views, but were views which tended nevertheless to have dangerous consequences. This was not defamatory of C. The criticism was as to the effect of his views, not of his character.

There was also no meaning defamatory of C in the article taken as a whole.


Comment

The decision is the second meaning judgment handed down this year (see also McEvoy v Michael [2014] EWHC 701 (QB)) to stress and apply the Strasbourg jurisprudence that the limits of acceptable criticism are wider as regards a public figure, such as a politician, than as regards a private individual, Sürek v. Turkey (no. 1, no. 26682/95). It is clear that where political debate is concerned, the court will take a robust approach to determining what is comment as opposed to fact.

It is interesting to note that because the claim form was issued after the Defamation Act 2013 came into force, the claim proceeded under the new procedural regime under which there is no longer a presumption in favour of trial by jury in defamation cases, which it has been suggested may have had the effect of hastening the conclusion of the case. Whether the 2013 Act will result indeed in the prompter settlement of claims remains to be seen.


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Instructing Solicitors

Farooq Bajwa & Co Solicitors for C, David Price Solicitors and Advocates