Full case report
Jameel & Another v Wall Street Journal Europe (CA)
Reference  EWCA Civ 1694;  EMLR 6
Court Court of Appeal
Judge Simon Brown, Mummery and Mance LJJ
Date of Judgment 26 Nov 2003
Libel – meaning – preliminary ruling as to capable meanings – qualified privilege – admissibility of evidence bearing on truth of allegation complained of
The Wall Street Journal Europe published a report that the authorities were monitoring the Claimants’ bank accounts to prevent them being used wittingly or unwittingly for financing terrorism. The Judge ruled that the words were not capable of bearing any lesser meaning than reasonable grounds to suspect. The substantive defence was qualified (Reynolds) privilege. There was no plea of justification. The Judge ruled that evidence was nevertheless admissible to prove that the Claimants’ accounts were not subject to monitoring, to support a case that the Defendant’s alleged sources could not have told the journalist what he claimed they had told him.
(1) Whether the words were capable of bearing any lesser meaning than reasonable grounds to suspect.
(2) Whether evidence bearing on the truth or falsity of the newspaper article’s central assertion could be admitted, in the absence of a plea of justification.
(1) In this case, the line between a reasonable ground to suspect meaning and a meaning of grounds merely for investigation was somewhat blurred. The distinction between these levels of meaning is not entirely satisfactory, and, given the height of the hurdle to be cleared if a meaning is to be ruled out, namely that a jury would have to be perverse to accept it, the judge had been wrong to rule out the lesser meaning. (2) GKR Karate v Yorkshire Post established that, since the existence or otherwise of qualified privilege has to be established at the date of publication, whether the words complained of were in fact true or false is irrelevant to the existence of privilege. Moreover, evidence of falsity cannot be introduced to impeach the reliability of a source. However, in the present case the evidence went to whether the source could have told the journalist what he said he did.
Another case demonstrating that a very high hurdle has to be cleared before a meaning can be ruled out from consideration by a jury. Ascertaining the range of permissible meanings is an exercise in generosity, not in parsimony. This case also establishes an important limitation on the GKR principle that evidence as to truth, or as to reliability of sources, is not admissible on the question of Reynolds privilege. The evidence will be admissible if it tends to establish that the journalist did not have a source at all, or at least a source who actually said what he is claimed to have said.
Carter-Ruck for the Claimant; Finers Stephens Innocent for the Defendants
More from 5RB
5RB is the pre-eminent set in the area for handling defamation, privacy, contempt and data protection matters. Interviewees praise the set for having great depth and quality of counsel, and note that it boasts many of the top barristers in the field. Get the lowdown here.
New 22nd Edition of Clerk & Lindsell on Torts, published by Sweet & Maxwell. Further info here.