Full case report
Poulter v Times Newspapers Limited
Reference ex tempore
Court Queen's Bench Division, Media and Communications List
Judge Nicklin J
Date of Judgment 14 Dec 2018
Defamation – Libel – Meaning – Trial of Preliminary Issue on meaning
The Claimant, a Conservative MP, was the subject of articles in The Sunday Times and on its website published on 5 November 2017 in the context of the ‘Westminster scandal’ relating to sexual harassment. One of the articles was by a fellow Conservative MP, Andrew Bridgen, stating that he was ‘calling out’ the Claimant and had been told by three female MPs that they were reluctant to go in the lift with the Claimant because he put his hand up their skirts. He said that he had made a complaint to the Party’s new disciplinary committee. The other article was by the newspaper’s deputy political editor, Caroline Wheeler. It reported on Mr Bridgen’s comments in the wider context of the Westminster scandal.
The Claimant sued for libel and contended that the Bridgen article meant that he was guilty of sexual assault, by putting his hand up the skirts of at least three female Members of Parliament without their consent; alternatively, that there were reasonable grounds to so suspect. He contended that the Wheeler article bore a reasonable grounds to suspect meaning. The Times contended that the words meant no more than that there were grounds to investigate whether the Claimant, whilst an MP, sexually harassed or assaulted women in Parliament. It accepted that, in whatever meaning was found, the words were defamatory of the Claimant and overcame the section 1, Defamation Act 2013 threshold.
The matter came on for a preliminary issue trial on meaning before service of a Defence.
(1) Whether the Bridgen and Wheeler articles must be read as a single set of words;
(2) the natural and ordinary meaning of the words complained of.
(1) In the hard copy publication the Bridgen and Wheeler articles must be read as a single set of words. They were on the same two pages separated by a large photograph of the Claimant. The ordinary, reasonable reader must be taken to read both together. The position was different in respect of the online publications. They were on separate URLs and it was not obvious that they were to be read together. Whether the ordinary, reasonable reader will follow links depends upon a number of factors such as their familiarity with the subject-matter; their level of interest in a particular article which may drive them to wish to know more; particular pointers in an article; and whether the reader thinks he can understand the article without linking on other content.
(2) There was no dispute on the law to apply. When read together in the hard copy, the Bridgen and Wheeler articles bore a Chase level 1 meaning of guilt of sexual assault. The articles were unbalanced and one-sided. Apart from a denial there was no other antidote material. The use of words such as ‘allegedly’ did not affect the overall meaning. The Bridgen article was condemnatory. He was stating he was putting his own career in jeopardy by calling out the Claimant’s behaviour. His article was entirely premised on the fact that the Claimant was guilty. Otherwise it makes no sense for him to speaking of a conspiracy of silence by the whips office or refer to other ‘victims of sexual harassment.’ There was no reason put forward for the reader to doubt what he said or what he was told by 3 MPs. The Wheeler article did not mitigate the Bridgen article. Therefore, the words complained of in the hard copy meant that the Claimant was guilty of sexual assault by putting his hand up the skirts of three female Members of Parliament. The Bridgen article online bore the same meaning. Since the Claimant limited his meaning of the Wheeler article to reasonable grounds to suspect, that article online bore that meaning.
The Judge re-iterated what he had said in Brown v Bower  4 WLR 197 that the repetition rule must be considered in the context of the words overall. However, he made clear that to avoid the effect of the repetition rule it was not sufficient to pepper articles with words such as ‘allegedly’ or ‘reportedly.’ It is reported speech that is caught by the rule. Meaning can be effected by the overall substance or impression given but not by the use of such devices, particularly here where words such as ‘allegedly’ were included in places which made no sense. As the Judge said, the use of such words has become notorious on Have I Got News For You because viewers, although they may not know of the existence of the repetition rule, they understand the practical effect of it.
Payne Hicks Beach for the Claimant; RPC for the Defendant
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.