Crow v Johnson

Reference: [2012] EWHC 1982 (QB)

Court: High Court (QBD)

Judge: Tugendhat J

Date of judgment: 16 Jul 2012

Summary: Defamation - meaning - capability - strike out - CPR 3.4

Instructing Solicitors: Thompsons Solicitors for C, Collyer Bristow for D


C is the General Secretary of the RMT Union, D the Mayor of London, who was standing for re-election in May 2012 against former Mayor Ken Livingstone. It was not disputed that the RMT had called around 20 transport strikes since 2002.

C was mentioned in D’s campaign leaflets, which stated: “Not Again: Ken wants to come back with his … Council Tax rises, Broken promises, cronies, scandals, waste Bob Crow.”

C sued in defamation, claiming the words complained of meant:

1. C’s policies, leadership of the RMT and association with Mr Livingstone: (a) seriously damages his electoral prospects and (b) has caused and will cause grave harm to the interests of Londoners.

2. C was part of and supported a culture of political immorality involving broken promises, cronyism, scandals and waste.

3. C was part of a corrupt, scandalous, unaccountable and wasteful group of cronies.

D applied to strike out the claim on the basis that the words bore no meaning defamatory of C, or at least none sufficiently serious to constitute a real and substantial tort.


Whether the words complained of are capable of bearing the meanings alleged by C or any defamatory meaning of him.


Striking out the claim as the words complained of are not capable of being defamatory of C:

Meaning 1 is not capable of being defamatory, the issue of whether or not Mr Livingstone should be elected mayor being an issue upon which there is not a right or wrong answer which all right thinking people should give.

Meanings 2 and 3: what is described in the leaflets – “council tax rises, scandals, broken promises waste and cronies” – is attributed to Mr Livingstone, no reasonable ordinary reader would attribute these to C.

In any event, in the context of a contested election the meanings could not be defamatory, statements made by one candidate against another could not be understood as anything other than partisan. In their context, these partisan statements would not lower C in the estimation of right thinking members of society generally.


An application of the general principles relating to when words are capable of being defamatory of a claimant. A reminder of the crucial importance of context in defamation. Partisan statements will be understood as such. This case, of course, occurred in the context of political speech, which is highly protected under Article 10 jurisprudence.