Cook v Telegraph Media Group Limited (No 3)
Reference:  EWHC 1519 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 16 Jun 2011
Summary: Libel - honest comment - trial of preliminary issues - malice
Instructing Solicitors: Hill Dickinson LLP for C; David Price Solicitors and Advocates for D
In 2006 the Claimant’s assistant made a £5 donation to a Battle of Britain memorial service in his constituency on his behalf. His claim for reimubursement of the donation as a Parliamentary expense was rejected. C was also a supporter of the campaign to commemorate Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park, a Second World War fighter commander. As part of its coverage of MPs expenses, The Sunday Telegraph published three articles on 31 May 2009 concerning C’s refused claim for reinbursement. C claimed that the articles conveyed meanings that he was a ‘low value-for-money MP’ and that the reimbursement claim was an extraordinary abuse and exploitation of the expenses system. In an previous ruling the judge held that the words were comment and meant: (i) C’s claim for £5 was particularly embarrassing having regard ot his support of the campaign to commerorate a Battle of Britain hero; (ii) C thought it appropriate to make a claim for a refund of £5, and (iii) at the time C made the claim he did not believe he could justify it to the public. comment. C argued that meanings (ii) and (iii) had been published maliciously because C had informed the journalist (S) prior to publication that he did not consider it appropriate to claim the £5. The trial of preliminary issues was ordered, The newspaper subsequently issued an application for the plea of malice to be struck out.
(1) Whether an honest person could express the comments on the basis of the admitted facts;
(2) Was the publication of comments (ii) and (iii) malicious?
The whole claim must fail: (1) The rules governing the reimbursement of MP’s expenses were not necessarily rules or standards which the public would accept as proper. There was no inconsistency in believing that a claim may be justifiable or appropriate under one set of rules while at the same time believing that it was not justifiable under some other rules or standard. What is justifiable legally is not always justifiable morally. It was quite plain that each of the three comments was one which could have been made by an honest person, and which is germane to the subject matter criticised.
(2)The only comment to which the issue of malice was relevant was comment (ii) because that was the comment referred to in the plea of malice. S was not the author of the comment (ii), and that was a complete answer to the claim of malice.In light of the evidence, C failed to establish that either S or the author of the comment lacked belief in the comment.
(3) Had the newspaper made an application at trial to withdraw the case in malice from the jury, the application would have succeeded. As the action was tried by judge alone, there was little point in an application that would have been made if the trial had been with a jury. Since the trial had been heard, there was no point in deciding whether the case would have been stuck out had the newspaper’s applicaiton been heard before the trial.
With the issue of meaning having been decided at an earlier hearing, the relatively brief judgment demonstrates that the honest comment defence need not always be a technical minefield.