Reference:  EWHC 2922 (QB)
Court: High Court (QBD)
Judge: Collins Rice J
Date of judgment: 2 Oct 2020
Summary: Defamation – Trial of Preliminary Issues – Meaning – Honest Opinion – Defamatory at common law
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Appearances: Adrienne Page KC - Leading Counsel (Defendant) Ben Gallop (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: Ince Gordon Dadds LLP for Defendants
The claimant, the businessman and founder of easy Jet Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, brought libel and data protection proceedings against the publisher of the Daily Telegraph and its Chief City Commentator, Ben Marlow.
The claim concerned an item in a column commenting on a dispute between the claimant and easyJet over the purchase of aeroplanes.
The claimant alleged that the item conveyed a defamatory and factual meaning that he had “made false and malicious claims that a group of major shareholders in easyJet have conspired with Airbus to prevent the cancellation of easyJeyt’s £5.4bn order of planes”.
The defendants contended that the statement was non-defamatory opinion to the effect that the claimant had “advanced a new conspiracy theory about why large shareholders in easyJet intend to support the company against him in his ongoing battle with the company and which is of very doubtful validity”.
By consent, Mr Justice Nicklin ordered that there be a trial of preliminary issues of (i) meaning, (ii) whether the statement complained of was fact or opinion, and (iii) whether it was defamatory of the claimant at common law.
1. The meaning(s) borne by the words complained of.
2. Whether the words complained of were statements of fact or expressions of opinion.
3. Whether the meanings found were defamatory of the claimant at common law.
The item bore the natural and ordinary meaning that the claimant felt so strongly that easyJet should cancel the Airbus contract, and that the opposition of some major shareholders to that was misconceived, that on one occasion he caricatured them and their motivation dismissively using samples of rhetoric that cannot be taken literally or seriously.
That was a statement of opinion, which was not defamatory of the claimant.
A judgment following a trial of preliminary issue, this case is of interest for the discussion of humour and sarcasm and for the finding that the words complained of did not meet the Thornton threshold of substantiality and were not defamatory of the claimant at common law.