Rufus v Elliott (preliminary issue)
Reference:  EWHC 807 (QB)
Court: High Court, Queen's Bench Division
Judge: Warby J
Date of judgment: 24 Mar 2015
Summary: Defamation - Libel - Meaning - Trial - Preliminary Issue
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Jonathan Barnes (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Simon Smith, Solicitor, for the Claimant; David Price Solicitors and Advocates for the Defendant
The Defendant, a former professional footballer, issued a press release explaining his decision to resign as a Kick It Out trustee. Kick It Out is an anti-racism campaign group, supported by the Football Association. The Claimant, also a former professional footballer, complained that with reference to an earlier newspaper article published in the Sun, headlined “A football anti-racism champion has sparked a race row after calling another black man “n*****””, concerning a row between the two men, who were previously friends and business colleagues, the Defendant’s press release implied that the Claimant had acted disloyally to the Defendant by making public a text message sent by the Defendant to the Claimant, which contained the extremely offensive word, “nigger”. The Claimant in fact denies that it was him who made the text public.
The Court of Appeal upheld a first instance ruling that the press release was capable of being defamatory and directed the trial of a preliminary issue as to meaning.
What was the actual meaning of the words complained of and were they defamatory of the Claimant?
By way of innuendo with reference to pleaded facts that had been stated by the Sun article the press release meant that the Claimant, a former friend and business colleague of the Defendant, had made public a text message which the Defendant had sent him, in which the Defendant, a trustee of the Kick It Out campaign and a long term anti-racism campaigner, had abused the Claimant by calling him a nigger and threatening him; and that as a result of the disclosure the Defendant had resigned his position as trustee because, as he acknowledged, his use of the n-word was inappropriate and in conflict with his public position. The press release did not therefore bear the meaning complained of; nor did it mean that the Claimant had acted disloyally.
Nor was the press release defamatory of the Claimant, because the conduct it attributed to him by way of innuendo is not conduct that would lower him in the esteem or opinion of right-thinking members of society generally. Right-thinking members of society generally would not disapprove of the revelation of the use of an unacceptable racist term by the Defendant, a trustee of an anti-racist organisation. That is so even though, in doing so (if he did, which he denies), the Claimant disclosed a private message sent to him. Duties implied by friendship are not placed above the desirability of holding to account a public figure whose private behaviour contradicts his public stance. Alternatively to that view, if the Claimant’s conduct would be regarded as involving disloyalty, then even so it is disloyalty of a kind that is not considered culpable or blameworthy by society in general.
Subject to any appeal, this was the final determination on meaning of a case that has spent nearly two years in litigation over capability of meaning. As the court noted, the fact that the trial took place less than a month after the Court of Appeal’s decision was handed down is an indication of how swiftly such hearings can be arranged, with co-operation from the parties. The hearing of the trial itself lasted just over an hour.