Ashley v Times Newspapers Limited

Reference: [2021] EWHC 2082 (QB)

Court: Queen's Bench Division

Judge: Saini J

Date of judgment: 23 Jul 2021

Summary: Defamation - Libel - Trial of Preliminary Issues - Meaning - Defamatory imputation - Statement of fact / expression of opinion - Whether the repetition rule is engaged - Multiple publications

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Appearances: Adam Speker QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)  Victoria Jolliffe (Claimant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Carter-Ruck for the Claimant

Facts

Between 16 and 18 July 2020, the Defendant, the publisher of The Times, published seven articles in various formats billed as a Times Investigation into a mobile phone service company called Sport Mobile and the person who ran it, John Shepherd. The newspaper reported upon claims made by Mr Shepherd in covert recordings that he had ‘fixed’ the mobile phone records of his clients, including ‘protecting’ texts and calls of the Claimant, the Chief Executive Officer and majority shareholder of Frasers Group plc, formerly Sports Direct International plc, when he was involved in a high-profile commercial dispute in 2017 (Blue v Ashley [2017] EWHC 1928).

The Claimant complained about his inclusion in these articles and issued a Claim Form on 28 January 2021. The parties agreed to a trial of three preliminary issues – meaning, defamatory imputation and whether the statements were or included statements of opinion – which came on before Mr Justice Saini on 18 July 2021. The parties largely agreed on how to read multiple articles in hard copy publications and online. On meaning, the Claimant contended that the repetition rule was engaged, that the articles bore Chase level 1 or Chase level 2 meanings, were defamatory of him and were statements of fact. The Defendant argued that the articles were not defamatory at all of the Claimant, that the reader would have understood that Mr Shepherd’s statements were boasts and that the words included the opinion that these were boasts which were undermined by the facts.

Issue

  1. Whether the repetition rule was engaged
  2. The natural and ordinary meanings of each of the seven articles sued upon
  3. Whether, in the meaning found, the words were defamatory of the Claimant
  4. Whether the words were or included expressions of opinion

Held

  1. The repetition rule was engaged on the facts because the articles were reporting upon statements made by Mr Shepherd. However, the rule could not be applied mechanistically to the determination of meaning. It does not in and of itself turn a report of another’s accusation into an accusation by the publisher of guilt on Chase level 1.
  2. All the articles bore the natural and ordinary meaning that there are grounds to suspect that John Shepherd and his company Sport Mobile helped the Claimant in avoiding disclosure of potentially relevant text messages and phone records in the 2017 High Court proceedings brought by Mr Blue. In addition one of the articles published in hard copy and online bore the additional meaning that there are grounds to suspect that the Claimant knew that Sport Mobile could have obtained his text message records while telling the court he could not get those messages. These were Chase level 2 meanings.
  3. The meanings are defamatory of the Claimant at common law. They relate to the Claimant’s conduct in High Court litigation, specifically withholding or hiding or protecting information that he should have provided to the other side. That is clearly improper conduct, applying the shared values of society.
  4. The defamatory imputations are plainly factual.

Comment

A further decision on meaning, with some useful discussion on the repetition rule and how to read articles that appear in different places in hard copy publications and online.