The Judge found that Unite was liable as a publisher of the Article because of its provision of the Press Statement.
The Press Statement, by itself, conveyed a seriously defamatory meaning about the Claimant. It referred to ‘fraud’ in unambiguous terms.
Unite’s Director of Campaigns and Communications gave the Press Statement knowing the broad gist of the article which The Skwawkbox intended to publish about the Claimant and the information about her membership which it would contain. The Judge found that the wording of Unite’s ‘for publication’ statement was “the equivalent of throwing a substantial quantity of fuel over a very small fire”.
The Judge rejected the Claimant’s alternative basis for Unite’s liability as publisher of the Article, namely the provision of information about Ms Turley’s application for membership.
The Claimant had established that the publication caused serious harm to her reputation: the allegation was serious; there was evidence of adverse reactions from some readers who had posted comments on social media; and evidence of re-publication online.
The Judge rejected the Defendants’ argument that, because the readership of the blog would have been partisan and hostile to the Claimant, the Article would not have caused serious harm to her reputation. There was no real evidence as to the readership’s views, but the Judge was also sceptical as to the logic of the proposition (para 114(iii)).
The Judge rejected the defences of truth and publication on a matter of public interest.
The circumstances in which the Claimant submitted her application to join the union, the contents of the application form which she completed (which did not include eligibility criteria), and her reaction when she was told 3 months later that she was not eligible to be in the Community section of Unite (which was to apologise and ask for her membership to be transferred to another section) were amongst the factors which led the Judge to reject the Defendants’ case that she was dishonest in any way when she submitted her membership application.
The Article was on a matter of public interest, so s.4(1)(a) was satisfied. However, there was no evidence that anyone at Unite held a belief that publication was in the public interest, and, although the Second Defendant did, subjectively, believe that publication was in the public interest, that belief was not reasonable. The Second Defendant had failed to take sufficient steps to support an important (but inaccurate) assertion in the Article that the Claimant had made a ‘false declaration’ when submitting her membership application. He had also not given her an adequate opportunity to respond prior to publication. The Defendants therefore failed to satisfy s.4(1)(b).
The Judge rejected the Defendants’ allegations that the Claimant was dishonest in her conduct of the litigation.
The damages award of £75,000 was a single award of general and aggravated damages. Although the meaning was only a Chase level 2 meaning (grounds to suspect), it was a serious allegation because it concerned the Claimant’s honesty and integrity. The Judge found that the Defendants’ conduct during the trial had “seriously aggravated the harm to the Claimant’s reputation and her distress”. The additional allegations made during the trial (of dishonesty and that the Claimant was ‘unfit’ to be an MP) also made “the vindicatory function of damages particularly important”.