Reference:  EWHC 1439 (QB)
Court: High Court
Judge: Warby J
Date of judgment: 7 Jun 2019
Summary: Defamation - meaning - preliminary issue trial - bane and antidote
Appearances: Gervase de Wilde (Defendant)
Instructing Solicitors: C, Carruthers Law, D, Legal Directorate, MPS
The claimant (“C”) was William Alexander Spicer, described in the Particulars of Claim as a respectable and widely-liked young man. The defendant (“D”) was the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis.
D was sued over an article published on 26 January 2017 at the news website for the Metropolitan Police www.news.met.police.uk (“the Article”).
The Article was headed “Two guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars”. In the body of the Article, the reader was told that C was one of the two racers, and that he had been found guilty by a jury. But the reader was also told that whilst both men had faced a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, as well as one of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, C had been acquitted of both those charges, and convicted of careless driving.
It was the other man, Farid Reza, who was convicted of causing death and causing serious injury by dangerous driving. Reza was sentenced to five years and three months’ imprisonment for the killing and three years’ concurrent for the serious injury, as well as being disqualified from driving. C, it was reported, was fined £1,000, given nine penalty points, and ordered to pay costs of £500.
C complained that he had been libelled by the Article including in the meaning that he and Mr Reza had been found guilty by a jury of unlawfully killing a young woman pedestrian. D contended that the Article did not bear any meaning as to a finding by a jury of C’s guilt, but that it meant that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that C had been involved in racing his car against another vehicle, and that the other vehicle had struck a young woman who was killed.
An order was made by Master Kay QC that there be tried as a preliminary issue “the question of what meaning the words in the publication complained of at paragraph 5 of the Particulars of Claim bear of the claimant.”
(1) Should the Court determine whether the words were defamatory at common law?
(2) Did the words complained of in the Article mean that C was found guilty by a jury of unlawfully killing Hina Shamin?
(3) What was the defamatory meaning of the words complained of?
(1) It was agreed that the Court should determine what natural and ordinary defamatory meaning was borne by the words.
(2) The Article did not mean that C was one of two found guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars. This was a line of argument which could only have any traction if passages were artificially selected from the Article as a whole, which was what C had done.
No reader could identify C as a person defamed by the Article unless and until the reader had got as far as paragraph , and this would not be read or interpreted in isolation from its immediate context, namely paragraphs  and . If paragraphs [2-4] were read together, they made clear that Mr Reza and C were both charged with and tried for causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving; that Mr Reza was convicted of both charges; but that C was acquitted of both. There was no reason for the reader to conclude that the claimant was convicted of causing death or serious injury carelessly, or at all. The Article made clear it was Reza’s car that caused the death and injury. C’s conviction was said to be for careless driving, and this was reinforced by the modest sentence of a fine and penalty points.
(3) The Article meant that C (1) took part with an acquaintance, Farid Reza, in a car race in the streets of Kingston upon Thames, in which they showed off by driving their high-performance cars at speeds of almost 70mph along public roads in an urban area at around 9pm, to see who had the fastest car; (2) did so with three friends in his car; (3) when Mr Reza’s car struck and killed a pedestrian, Hina Shamin, failed to stop but drove past the accident and away from the scene; (4) was for those reasons reasonably suspected of being jointly responsible with Mr Reza for causing the death of Hina Shamin, and of causing serious injury to a young boy who was one of Mr Reza’s passengers, by dangerous driving; (5) was arrested for, charged with, tried for and acquitted of those offences (Reza being convicted of both); but (6) was guilty and convicted of careless driving.
The ruling is a vivid illustration of the well-known principle in Charleston v News Group Newspapers Ltd  2 AC 65, since this was, like Charleston, a case in which the text of the Article neutralised what would otherwise be a libel in a headline which was inconsistent with that text.
In relation to the approach to pleading libel claims, it is clear from the ruling that, while it may not be impermissible to select only limited excerpts from a short publication for complaint, it will not ultimately be possible to argue that these can be isolated from their context for the purposes of defamatory meaning.