Full case report

Bonnick v Morris

Reference [2002] UKPC 31; [2003] 1 AC 300; [2002] 3 WLR 820; [2002] EMLR 37
Court Privy Council

Judge Lords Nicholls, Hoffmann, Hope & Scott and Tipping J

Date of Judgment 17 Jun 2002


Summary

Defamation – Libel- qualified privilege to the world at large- meaning- whether single meaning rule applied applicable in determining whether Reynolds privilege available – whether article met standard of responsible journalism


Facts

The Claimant was until Christmas 1990 the managing director of a Jamaican Government owned company. He sued the Defedants who were the journalist, editor and publisher of the Daily Gleaner in respect of an article about “very unusual” contracts entered into by the company. The Judge found in favour of the Claimant. The Court of Appeal of Jamaica allowed the Defendants appeal by a majority. The Claimant appealed to the Privy Council.


Issue

(1) Whether the article meant that the claimant had been dismissed because of impropriety in relation to the contracts
(2) Whether the articles attracted qualified privilege


Held

(1) the Court should give the article the natural and ordinary meaning which in this case suggested to the reader that there was a connection between the Claimant’s dismissal and the contracts: Skuse v Granada Television Ltd [1996] EMLR 278 approved; (2) the article attacted qualified privilege under the principles outlined in Reynolds v Times Newspapers [1999] 2 AC 127 which were consistent with section 22 of the Jamaican Constitution. When applying the standard of journalism it must be done so in a practical and flexible manner. It did not have to be applied exclusively by reference to the single meaning rule. A journalist should not be penalised for making a wrong decision on a question of meaning on which different people might reasonably take different views. Since the company was government owned, the defamatory allegation was not a grave one and there was a public interest in the subject matter the failure to make inquiries was unfortunate but not fatal to the privilege.


Comment

Perhaps the most important part of the decision is the treatment of meaning. Under Reynolds it appears that the meaning intended by the journalist is considered relevant. If an unintended higher or different meaning is carried by the words complained of, that should not necessarily be held against the journalist.


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Instructing Solicitors

Myers Fletcher & Gordon for the Claimant; Sharpe Pritchard for the Defendant