Reference:  EWHC 2481 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Divison
Judge: Richard Parkes QC sitting as a Deputy Judge
Date of judgment: 20 Oct 2008
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Qualified privilege - Defamatory meaning - Internet publication - Trade journal
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Instructing Solicitors: Stevens for the Claimant; Thompsons for the Defendant
The Claimant (C) brought a libel claim in respect of a report that he had been legitimately excluded from membership of the trade union ASLEF. The words complained of were published in a trade journal and on the ASLEF website. C accepted that publication to all but 202 of the publishees was protected by qualified privilege. D made 3 pre-trial applications: (1) the 202 publications in issue were protected by QP; (2) the words were not defamatory as a report of the Certification Officer’s ruling did not “engage” the C; and (3) there was no evidence from which the jury could infer non-privileged online publication.
(1) Whether publication to the 202 publishees was protected by qualified privilege;
(2) Whether the words were capable of bearing a defamatory meaning; and,
(3) Whether there was any evidence from which the jury could draw an inference of internet publication in circumstances in which publication was not protected by qualified privilege.
(1) Publication to the 131 of the 202 publishees in issue was not privileged. The interests of the publishees on the list varied and it was not enough for D to show that a publishee had specialist expertise in the transport industry.
(2) The words were plainly capable of being defamatory of C.
(3) In the absence of evidence to justify the inference of non-privileged online publication, it was no more than pure speculation to infer that an ‘outsider’ would have read the words complained of. Inferences should not be a matter of guesswork and the issue should not therefore be left to the jury.
The list of the 202 publishees in issue was analysed in detail to establish the exact nature of the alleged common duty/interest of each individual, demonstrating that it is not enough for a defendant to merely assert that all readers of a trade journal have an interest in receiving the information. The judge firmly rejected the Defendant’s submission that it was for the Claimant to lead evidence that there were publishees who did not have an interest in the railway industry.