Dell’Olio v Associated Newspapers Ltd
Reference:  EWHC 3272 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 20 Dec 2011
Summary: Libel - ruling on meaning - whether pleaded meaning possible - approach to question whether words can bear any other defamatory meaning - relevance of Pre-Action Protocol and letter of claim - pleaded meaning impossible - C identified no other meaning of which she might complain - action dismissed
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Instructing Solicitors: Reynolds Porter Chamberlain for D; Collyer Bristow for C
C, a well-known public figure, sued for libel in respect of a Daily Mail article of 30 April 2011 headed ‘Return of the man-eater’ which concerned her affair with Sir Trevor Nunn. C’s letter of claim complained that the article depicted her as a serial gold-digger who had ‘deliberately set out to snare herself a wealthy man by making their adulterous affair public thereby destroying his marriage for her own personal gain.’ After D in correspondence disputed this meaning, C sued complaining of a meaning that she was, or was reasonably suspected of being ‘a serial gold digger who cynically seeks out relationships with men not for genuine emotional reasons but because they are millionaires and therefore capable of funding her conspicuously lavish and ostentatious lifestyle.’
D applied for a ruling that the words were incapable of bearing this meaning, and for the dismissal of the action. It was accepted that some other meaning might be derived from the words, but it was argued that no meaning had been identified that C wished to complain of and which crossed the threshold of seriousness identified in Thornton v Telegraph Media Group (no 2).
(1) Were the words complained of capable of bearing the pleaded meaning?
(2) What should the court’s approach be to the question of whether the words could bear some other meaning defamatory of the claimant?
Ruling the words to be incapable of the pleading meaning, and dismissing the action:-
(1) The threshold principle identified in Thornton was derived from the common law authorities, but where words reflect on the personal qualities of an individual the question for the court is now viewed in the light of rights under Articles 8 and 10 of the Convention. Terluk v Berezovsky (CA) considered.
(2) Where words complained of relate to an individual’s personal rather than their professional life the authorities show that intrusions must reach a certain level of seriousness to engage the operation of the Convention: see R (Gillan) v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis, Wood v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolisand M v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
(3) If a claimant could not rely on Art 8, her reputational rights would still be weighed in accordance with Article 10(2), but a non-Convention right may weigh less heavily than a Convention right.
(4) Here, the fact of C’s existing celebrity was relevant to whether the words complained of had a defamatory meaning; so was her letter of claim, in which she had not, or had not clearly identified any factual inaccuracies or insupportable comments in the article, as required by the Pre-Action Protocol; it was not for the court to identify in a vacuum possible alternative defamatory meanings of which C might complain; that was for her; the matter did not cross the threshold of seriousness; the words could not bear the pleaded meaning; and in the absence of any alternative meaning proposed by C the action would be dismissed.
The judgment highlights that Article 8 is relevant to the threshold of seriousness that claimants must now cross to bring a viable libel claim. It also emphasises that a claimant will not necessarily be allowed a second bite of the cherry on the issue of what defamatory meaning(s) a publication can bear.