Reference:  EWHC 924 (QB);  EMLR 20
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Sharp J
Date of judgment: 28 Apr 2010
Summary: Libel - Summary judgment - Defamatory meaning - Whether articles in newspaper to be read together - Justification - Fair comment - Whether real prospect of rebutting defences
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Appearances: David Sherborne (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Addleshaw Goddard for C; David Price for D
C sued in respect of an article published in the Daily Telegraph under the heading “World’s worst tennis pro wins at last”. The article, on the front page, described C as having suffered 54 defeats in a row. It referred to the full story being published on “S20”, in the sports supplement to the newspaper. No complaint was made about the article on S20.
It was common ground that C had in fact lost 54 straight matches in world ranking tournaments. C had however participated in domestic Spanish tournaments in which he had secured some victories, but those tournaments did not attract world ranking points. The second article on S20 made reference to the Spanish tournaments. D applied for summary judgment on the basis either that (i) the words complained of were not defamatory when read with the second article, as they should be; or (ii) C had no real prospect of successfully rebutting the defences of justification and/or fair comment that D relied upon.
(1) Whether, in determining meaning, the words complained of had to be read together with the second article;
(2) Whether the words complained of were defamatory of C;
(3) Whether D’s defences of justification and/or fair comment were bound to succeed.
(1) The words complained of had to be read together with the second article. Where one newspaper article is spread out over a number of pages, the ordinary reasonable reader is to be taken to have turned over the pages, and found and read what he was directed to on the continuation pages. The key question in this context is whether the various items under consideration “where sufficiently closely connected as to be regarded as a single publication” – and this is so whether or not the items in the same publication are continuation pages or different items of published material relating to the same subject matter. Here there was an obvious clear link between the two stories.
(2) The words complained of were capable of suggesting “want of skill” or incompetence, which is capable of being defamatory. It would not however be right to permit a claimant generally to contend that the words complained of are defamatory on grounds which do not emerge from pleaded meanings. The real complaint of the present pleading was one of ridicule, essentially that C was made to look “absurdly bad at tennis”. Were the claim to continue C would have to formulate a defamatory meaning which more precisely reflects his complaint.
(3) As to the defences raised, it was first necessary to determine meaning. D had made it plain that C’s string of defeats were suffered on the international circuit and that C had played in the national Spanish tournaments. A reasonable and sensible reader would not really think that the suggestion that D was the “world’s worst tennis professional” was an objectively verifiable allegation independent of his record of losses in the 54 matches. The facts were sufficient to justify any defamatory meaning that the words were capable of bearing.
An affirmation of the principle that related articles on the same subject will be read together when considering defamatory meaning, which will be of great comfort to the print media in particular. The discussion of the conceptual difficulties of “want of skill” as a defamatory meaning in a sporting context is also valuable.