Charman v Orion Publishing Group & others (No.2)

Reference: [2005] EWHC 2187 (QB)

Court: Queen's Bench Division

Judge: Gray J

Date of judgment: 14 Oct 2005

Summary: Defamation - Libel - Meaning - Trial of a Preliminary Issue on Meaning - the natural and ordinary meaning of the words complained of

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Appearances: Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Defendant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Simons Muirhead Burton for the Claimant; Wiggin LLP for the Defendants

Facts

The Claimant was a police officer in the Metropolitan Police. He sought damages for libel in respect of allegations made in both the hardback and paperback versions of a book entitled, Bent Coppers. The Claimant contended that the words meant that he was guilty of being a corrupt police officer. The Defendants accepted that the words were defamatory but disputed the Claimant’s meaning, contending that the words meant that there were reasonable grounds to suspect and/or investigate the Claimant. Substantive defences of justification, Reynolds qualified privilege and statutory qualified privilege were relied upon. The Claimant applied for trial by judge alone and for meaning to be tried as a preliminary issue. At the CMC in June 2005 Gray J ordered that the action should be tried by judge alone and that meaning should be tried as a preliminary issue.

Issue

Whether the book, in either or both of its editions, bore the defamatory meaning contended by the Claimant or whether it bore some lesser, and if so what lesser, defamatory meaning.

Held

The hardback did not bear the meaning of guilt contended for by the Claimant. However the adjective “reasonable” was inadequate to convey the degree of suspicion about the Claimant conveyed to readers. The ordinary and reasonable reader would understand the words complained of to mean “that there are cogent grounds to suspect that the Claimant abused his position as a police officer by colluding in the commission of substantial fraud by Geoffrey Brennan from whom he and Mr Redgrave received corrupt payments totalling £50,000.” Despite changes having been made to the paperback edition it did not bear a lesser defamatory meaning than the hardback.

Comment

Rulings on meaning like this are rare. It was only possible because the Court had earlier dispensed with the jury under s.69 Supreme Court Act 1981. The Court rejected the Claimant’s Chase Level 1 meaning of guilt and the D’s Chase level 3 meaning. The Judge found a Chase level 2 meaning, albeit replacing “reasonable” with the adjective “cogent”. It is uncertain what particulars of justification would be admissible to support this type of level 2 meaning.