Sheikh v Associated Newspapers Limited

Reference: [2019] EWHC 2947 (QB)

Court: High Court

Judge: Warby J

Date of judgment: 4 Nov 2019

Summary: Defamation - Meaning - Honest Opinion - Preliminary Issue Trial

Download: Download this judgment

Appearances: Adrienne Page QC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)  Andrew Caldecott QC - Leading Counsel (Defendant)  Ben Gallop (Defendant) 

Instructing Solicitors: Hamlins LLP for the Claimant; RPC LLP for the Defendant

Facts

The claimant was Lord Sheikh, a Conservative Member of the House of Lords. The defendant was the publisher of MailOnline.

The claimant brought an action in libel against the defendant over an article published on 15 August 2018 on the MailOnline website entitled: “EXCLUSIVE: Top Tory peer’s appearance at Corbyn’s ‘hate conference’ in Tunisia comes after YEARS of rubbing shoulders with Islamists, hate preachers and Holocaust deniers”.

The claimant alleged that the meaning of the words and photographs complained of in the article was that he “is a supporter of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, violent Islamist jihad, terrorism and hate-preaching”.

The defendant contended that the article meant that the claimant “has irresponsibly and/or uncritically rubbed shoulders with organisations and individuals who have variously espoused and/or expressed some or all of the anti-Semitic views and support for violence against Jewish and/or Israeli and/or Western interests which are mentioned in the Article and in some cases supported them in circumstances that found a reasonable suspicion that the Claimant has tacitly condoned at least some of these views [in the sense of not condemning those repugnant views or at least some of them when he should] and/or positions such as to merit an investigation into the matter by the Chairman of his party”.

Senior Master Fontaine directed a trial of two preliminary issues: the meaning(s) borne by the words and photographs complained of in the article, and whether such meaning(s) were statements of fact or expressions of opinion.

Issue

1. The meaning(s) borne by the words and photographs complained of.

2. Whether such meaning(s) were statements of fact or expressions of opinion.

Held

1. The natural and ordinary meaning of the words and photographs complained of was:

the claimant has a long history of support for, or close association with, people and organisations that express or hold anti-Semitic and other extremist views and attitudes which, despite his attempts to explain it,

  1. provides strong grounds for suspecting that he is secretly an anti-Semite who approves of and sympathises with Holocaust denial, Islamist jihad and hate-preaching, which he is prepared knowingly and actively to support; and
  2. is shocking and disturbing”.

2. The bulk of these meanings consisted of statements of fact, not comment or opinion. The conclusion in paragraph (i) above was one of fact. Paragraph (ii) was an expression of opinion on the matters presented as fact.

Comment

A good illustration of the premium placed by the court, when determining meaning and questions of fact versus opinion, on avoiding over-elaborate analysis, and focusing on the broad impression made by an article on the ordinary reasonable reader. To simulate the position of the reasonable reader, Warby J read the article online before reading or hearing any of the parties’ arguments, and without paying detailed attention to the rival meanings proposed.