Campbell-James v Guardian Media Group plc
Reference:  EWHC 893 (QB);  EMLR 542
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 12 May 2005
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Offer of Amends - Assessment of Compensation under <A
target=_blank>s.3(5) Defamation Act 1996
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Jacob Dean (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Carter-Ruck for the Claimant
Colonel Jonathan Campbell-James complained over an article published in The Guardian in September 2004 headed “UK officers linked to torture jail” which falsely linked him with the notorious abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2003. Col Campbell-James accepted an offer of amends made by the Guardian pursuant to s.3 Defamation Act 1996.
The appropriate sum to be awarded by way of compensation for the admitted libel.
The Judge considered the allegation to be very serious: “anyone who truly bore a degree of responsibility for such atrocious abuse of power, even indirectly, would rightly be reviled and made the subject of criminal charges or, at least, military discipline.” He noted Col Campbell-James’s distress at being accused of something which he found “personally abhorrent”. There was solid evidence before the court of a serious security risk to Col Campbell-James and his family following the article. The Guardian was criticised for waiting 3 months before publishing an apology and correction, when there should have been “an immediate and generous acknowledgement of error”. Its attitude was described as “remarkably casual”. Eady J considered £90,000 to be the correct notional starting point for damages which would have been awarded at trial and 35% to be the right reduction for the offer of amends and apology, leading to an award of £58,500. The Claimant was awarded his costs of the cla
“It could not have hurt The Guardian to acknowledge promptly, on the basis of uncontroversial facts, that the Claimant had nothing to do with the Abu Ghraib abuses and was not even in Iraq when they took place. For some reason, The Guardian felt unable to take those basic steps. It was not simply a matter of good journalistic practice; it was a matter of elementary human decency.” – The judge’s criticism of The Guardian‘s response in this case can fairly be described as stinging. It stands as a salutary reminder to all media defendants of the need to act reasonably and responsibly as soon as it becomes clear that a mistake has been made. The damages award is by far the largest yet made under s.3(5) Defamation Act 1996 and shows that the regime can be effective for the most serious libels, and not simply the classic tabloid fodder that previous cases might have been thought to represent.