McKeith v News Group Newspapers Ltd
Reference:  EWHC 1162 (QB);  EMLR 780
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 14 Jun 2005
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Meaning - Common sting - Justification - Reynolds privilege - Meaning - Justification - Striking out - Case management
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Desmond Browne CBE QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
David Sherborne (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Campbell Hooper for the Claimant
The Claimant complained that an article in The Sun alleged that she had dishonestly claimed to have a genuine nutritionist degree when in fact she had purchased it off-the shelf from a worthless US college (“the deceitful doctorate allegation”). The article also referred to controversy over the merits of her nutritional advice. The Defendant sought to justify both the deceitful doctorate allegation and the nutritional advice allegation, as well as raising a Reynolds defence. The Claimant sought to strike out that part of the justification which related to the nutritional advice since she admitted that there was always room for debate amongst experts on nutritional advice, and that an open-ended enquiry into nutritional theories should be disallowed on case management grounds. The Claimant also sought to strike out the Reynolds plea as having no realistic prospect of success.
(1) Did the deceitful doctorate allegation and the nutritional advice allegation have a common sting? (2) Would the investigation of the nutritional advice allegation be justified on case management grounds, or could it be dealt with by admissions in the same way as in <A
href=”https://www.5rb.com/5rb/casereports/detail.asp?case=60″ target=_parent>US Tobacco v BBC? (3) Is it necessary for the defendant to plead his subjective belief in the truth of what was published in the particulars of a Reynolds defence? (4) Did the Reynolds defence in this case have a realistic prospect of success?
(1) There was no common sting between the two allegations, especially as the former one contained an implicit allegation of dishonesty; (2) The principles of case management post-CPR meant a claimant should be allowed to concentrate on the ‘central’ issue of complaint, namely the deceitful doctorate allegation. The nutritional debate could readily be dealt with by admissions as in <A
href=”https://www.5rb.com/5rb/casereports/detail.asp?case=60″ target=_parent>US Tobacco. (3) Following the Court of Appeal’s ruling in <A
href=”https://www.5rb.com/5rb/casereports/detail.asp?case=339″ target=_parent>Jameel v Wall Street Journal, it is necessary, especially in non-reportage cases, for the defendant to plead the state of mind of the relevant journalists as to the truth of what was published. (4) Even assuming all of the factual assertions in the plea in the newspaper’s favour, the defence had no realistic prospect of succeeding.
This case shows that the Court will permit a claimant to select a meaning for complaint without allowing the defendant to justify the entirety of the article and thereby turn an otherwise comparatively simple trial into a wide-ranging investigation. There have been few applications of the principle suggested in <A
href=”https://www.5rb.com/5rb/casereports/detail_redirect.asp?case=60″ target=_parent>US Tobacco v BBC since the case was decided in 1988. The Court also made clear that in non-reportage Reynolds cases a defendant should state the subjective belief of the journalist as to the meaning alleged to be true (in line with <A
href=”https://www.5rb.com/5rb/casereports/detail_redirect.asp?case=339″ target=_parent>Jameel v Wall Street Journal). It is also not appropriate for the pleader to transpose the particulars of justification wholesale into a Reynolds plea, without recognising the separate functions and principles which apply to these two very different defences.