Reference:  EWCA Civ 748
Court: Court of Appeal
Judge: Longmore & Rafferty LJJ and Sir Stephen Sedley
Date of judgment: 21 Jun 2013
Summary: Libel - Malicious Falsehood - Single-meaning rule - Determination of meaning for purposes of libel and malicious falsehood claims - justification - striking out
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Appearances: Desmond Browne CBE KC - Leading Counsel (Claimant) Aidan Eardley KC (Appellant)
Instructing Solicitors: Slater & Gordon for the Claimant; Bates Wells Braithwaite for the Defendants
The Claimant was the former Treasurer of the Conservative Party. On 15 March 2012 he had been made the subject of subterfuge and covert recording by the First and Second Defendants (members of the Insight team of theSunday Times) who posed as potential donors to the Conservative Party.
The Claimant sued on the articles published on 25 March 2012 by the Defendants. He brought claims for libel and malicious falsehood.
In relation to the libel claim, the Defendants relied on a defence of justification contending that the articles were true in lower meanings. In the alternative, the Defendants contended that the words complained were true in substantially one of the meanings complained of by the Claimant.
In relation to the malicious falsehood claim, the Defendants denied malice, relied upon their justification defence to rebut falsity and contended that the publication was not likely to cause the Claimant pecuniary damage within s.3 Defamation Act 1952.
On 5 June 2013 the trial Judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, ruled that the the Articles bore the meanings pleaded by the Claimant for the purposes of both the single-meaning in libel and as meanings that a substantial number of reasonable readers would have understood the Articles to bear. The meanings were
(1) In return for cash donations to the Conservative Party, the Claimant corruptly offered for sale the opportunity to influence government policy and gain unfair advantage through secret meetings with the Prime Minister and other senior ministers.
(2) The Claimant made the offer, even though he knew that the money offered for secret meetings was to come, in breach of the ban under UK electoral law, from Middle Eastern investors in a Liechtenstein fund; and
(3) further, in order to circumvent and thereby evade the law, the Claimant was happy that the foreign donors should use deceptive devices, such as creating an artificial UK company to donate the money or using UK employees as conduits, so that the true source of the donation would be concealed.
He also ruled (i) that in relation to the first meaning, the allegation of corruption connoted criminal corruption; and (ii) the Articles were not capable of bearing the meaning that the suggestion attributed to the Claimant that the undercover reporters’ clients’ funds be funnelled through the reporters was no more than a suggested breach of the spirit of the legislation. The allegation could only reasonably be understood to mean that the Claimant was suggesting a breach of electoral law, not just a breach of its spirit.
In consequence of these rulings, he struck out the defence of justification and entered judgment for the Claimant on the libel claim, granted an injunction and ordered damages to be assessed. The Defendants appealed.
The Defendants sought permission to appeal contending:
(1) that the Judge should had found that the single-meanings of the Articles for the purposes of the libel claim were the meanings advanced by the Defendants in their defence of justification;
(2) that the Articles were incapable of bearing the meaning of criminal corruption, whether for the claim in libel or malicious falsehood; and
(3) that, in any event, the Judge should not have struck out their defence of justification to the first of the Claimant’s meanings.
Allowing the appeal in part:
(1) for the purposes of the single-meaning meaning rule in libel, the Court of Appeal affirmed the finding of the Judge that the Articles bore the meanings pleaded by the Claimant, but that the allegation of corruption in the first meaning was not, contrary to the Judge’s finding, one of criminal corruption;
(2) for the purposes of the multiple-meanings rule in malicious falsehood, the Court of Appeal held (i) that a substantial number of reasonable readers would have understood the first of the Claimant’s meanings to convey a suggestion of criminal corruption; and (ii) that the Judge had been right to conclude that the “breach of the spirit of the law” meaning was not one that the Articles were capable of bearing; and
(3) the reversal of the Judge’s decision as to criminal corruption meant that the defence of justification to the first of the Claimant’s meaning should be tried. The orders granting judgment to the Claimant for damages to be assessed and an injunction on the libel claim would be set aside. The matter would proceed to trial.
The reversal of the Judge’s conclusion on one aspect of the meaning of the Articles – as to criminal corruption – meant that the action would proceed to trial.