Charleston & Smith v News Group Newspapers Ltd

Reference: [1995] 2 AC 65; [1995] 2 WLR 450; [1995] 2 All ER 313

Court: House of Lords

Judge: Lords Keith, Bridge, Browne-Wilkinson, Slynn and Lloyd

Date of judgment: 16 Mar 1995

Summary: Defamation - Libel - Headline - Photographs - Meaning

Appearances: James Price QC (Defendant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Andrew Moore & Co for the Claimants; Farrer & Co for the Defendant

Facts

Two actors from an Australian soap opera sued a newspaper for defamation arising out of the publication of digitally manipulated images. The newspaper had published an article comprising photographs showing the plaintiff’s faces superimposed on the near- naked bodies of models in pornographic poses. The text made it clear that the photographs had been produced by superimposing the plaintiffs faces on the bodies of others without the knowledge or consent of the plaintiffs and castigated the makers of a pornographic computer game.

Issue

Whether the publication of the photographs were capable of bearing a defamatory meaning, whether viewed on their own or with the headlines and captions

Held

A claim for libel could not be founded on a headline or photograph in isolation from the related text. The question of whether an article was defamatory had to be answered by reference to the response of the ordinary, reasonable reader to the entire publication. However, the question of whether the text of an article or a disclaimer was sufficient to neutralise an otherwise defamatory headline or photograph was a matter for the jury. On the facts of the case, no reader could possibly have drawn the inference that the appellants could have been willing participants in the photographs either by posing for them or by giving consent for their faces to be superimposed on the bodies of others.

Comment

The practical effect of this decision is that provided an article, headline or caption makes it clear that the image is altered, a claim in defamation is unlikely to succeed. But it is only where the antidote (whether a disclaimer or otherwise) so obviously extinguishes the defamation that no issue could properly be left to the jury that the judge should rule at an interim stage that the article as a whole is not capable of being defamatory.

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