Moss v Channel Five Broadcasting Ltd
Court: Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Eady J
Date of judgment: 3 Feb 2006
Defamation - Libel - Meaning - General/Specific Charge - Justification
David Sherborne (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Harbottle & Lewis for the Claimant; Wiggin LLP for the Defendant
The Claimant, Kate Moss, brought proceedings over a television programme broadcast by the Defendant in January 2005 which she contended alleged that, in 2001, she had consumed so much cocaine that she ended up in a coma. After commencing libel proceedings, further allegations of cocaine use appeared in The Daily Mirror. A week after the Mirror allegations were published the Claimant issued a public statement apologising for her actions. In its defence, the Defendant pleaded justification of the meaning that the Claimant was a “serious cocaine abuser” and relied on the 2001 incident, the Mirror incident and the Claimant’s apparent admission in her apology. The Claimant applied to strike out the Defendant’s meaning on the basis that she had made a specific complaint in relation to the 2001 incident and that the Defendant was impermissibly seeking to defend a general meaning.
(1) Whether the words complained of were capable of bearing the Defendant’s general meaning; and
(2) Whether the Defendant was entitled to rely on matters arising after transmission of the programme to support its defence.
(1) The Defendant was entitled to justify the words complained of in any meaning that they were capable of bearing. Applying the well-known principles to determining the range of permissible meanings (see e.g. Gillick v Brook Advisory Centres), the Defendant’s meaning was one that the words complained of (in their context) were capable of bearing (Bookbinder v Tebbit  1 WLR 640 and Williams v Reason  1 WLR 96 considered);
(2) as such, the Defendant was entitled to rely on the later Mirror incident and subsequent apology and the Claimant was ordered to plead her case in answer to them in her Reply.
At root, the dispute between general versus specific meanings is simply a question of determining whether the Defendant’s meaning is one that the words complained of are capable of bearing. Here, the Court ruled that, in their context, the words were capable of bearing the Defendant’s general meaning that the Claimant was a “serious cocaine abuser”. In order to determine the capacity of the words, the Court applies the test of perversity; i.e. whether it would be perverse for a jury to find such a meaning was borne by the words complained of (see Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe). In defence of a capable meaning, a Defendant is entitled to rely on matters that occur after the date of publication (see Cohen –v- Daily Telegraph Ltd  1 WLR 916).