Reference:  EWHC 1996 (QB)
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 28 Jul 2006
Summary: Libel - Meaning - Justification - Substantial truth - Allegation of fraudulently boasting of bogus PhD obtained merely for money - Damages - Assessment of damages
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Desmond Browne CBE KC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Swan Turton for the Claimant; Davenport Lyons for the Defendant
C, a well-known hypnotherapist, held a PhD from an institution in Louisiana, at one time known as La Salle University. In 1996, the President of this institution pleaded guilty to fraud on the basis that he had misled students into believing the institution was accredited for the granting of degrees, when in truth it was not. C’s doctorate was the subject of a number of articles written by journalists Victor Lewis-Smith and Paul Sparks between 1997 and 2003. C brought proceedings for libel in respect of an article appearing in The Mirror on 18 October 2003 published by D under the heading “It’s a Load of Doc and Bull.” He contended that words in the article meant that he had fraudulenty boasted in his publicity material that he had a PhD whilst knowing full well that it was bogus as he had obtained it merely in return for the payment of money. D pleaded justification, seeking to defend the meaning that C publicly claimed to possess a doctorate whilst knowing it was “bogus”.
(1) What did the words mean and were they defamatory?
(2) Had D proved to the civil standard that the defamatory allegations were substantially true?
(3) If C had been defamed, what was the appropriate sum to compensate him for his hurt feelings and the injury to his reputation?
Finding for C on liability:
(1) The meaning pleaded by C was upheld.
(2) D did not discharge the burden of proving that the sting of the words complained of was substantially true. C was not dishonest and whatever one may think of the academic quality of his work, or of the degree granted by La Salle, it was not accurate to describe it as “bogus”. It was not granted “merely” for money (or even “in effect” merely for money).
(3) C was entitled to a sum of money to compensate and vindicate him in respect of the allegations. C wished to pursue an allegation of malice against Victor Lewis-Smith, who would have to be given a chance to deal with this, therefore necessitating a further hearing if agreement as to damages could not be reached.
This was a case that turned very much on its own facts. The justification plea failed essentially because the Judge accepted C’s sincerity; any valid criticisms that might be made of La Salle did not indicate the necessary dishonesty on his part. The Judge was critical of D’s intransigent attitude and ‘arm chair machismo’. While holding that he could not deal with the issue of damages without further evidence, he nonetheless suggested that C’s damages may be modest, given that he could have clarified the nature of the work he did for his PhD much earlier, and the fact that he did not receive a great deal of supervision or guidance from La Salle.