Reference:  EWHC 3197 (QB)
Judge: Tugendhat J
Date of judgment: 8 Dec 2011
Summary: summary judgment - part 24 - defamation - comment or fact - meaning - innuendo meaning - honest comment - newspapers - elections
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Desmond Browne CBE KC - Leading Counsel (Claimant)
David Hirst (Claimant)
Instructing Solicitors: Irwin Mitchell LLP for C; Goodman Derrick LLP for Ds
C brought a libel claim in relation to 2 campaign newsletters designed to look like local newspapers distributed by Eastbourne Liberal Democrats on behalf of D1 at the 2010 General Election. One newsletter, calling itself ‘The Sussex Courier’ referred to C as an ‘Expenses Scandal’ MP in a headline and internal article and a later newsletter made the same allegation. After the election C sued D1 who won Eastbourne in May 2010 and his election agent who was responsible for campaign literature. The Ds pleaded the defence of honest comment. C issued an application for summary judgment in relation to the pleaded defence of honest comment on the basis that the allegation was a verifiable allegation of fact and, in the circumstances of the publication, not recognisably a comment. D cross-applied for a ruling on meaning and for summary judgment on the basis the statements could only be honest comment. C argued that there was an issue of honesty necessary for determination at trial—the Ds had admitted to omitting the facts that C’s claims had been found to be above board by three investigations, including a retrospective assessment of all MPs expenses claims by Sir Thomas Legg, a retired senior civil servant, appointed by Parliament to this task. The parties agreed that the mode of trial was to be by Judge alone.
(1) Whether the statements were allegations of fact or expressions of opinion, and consequently should judgment be entered for C or Ds.
(2) What the actual single meaning of the statements was.
Entering judgment for C
1. The words complained of, in the context of their publication in spoof local newspapers and presented as part of different news stories, were allegations of fact against C.
2. The meaning did not have the limited meaning contended for by Ds, namely that the scandal that was referred to was merely the legitimate use of the MPs expenses system in C’s particular case, but C’s meaning was to be preferred—C was guilty of abusing the MPs expenses system for his own advantage in a way that the ‘expenses scandal’ would have (to at least some readers) the wider meaning suggested by contemporaneous media reporting, which had focussed on cases of notorious impropriety, breaches of the rules and, in a small number of cases, illegality.
A further reminder of the importance that comments made on matters of public interest need to be reasonably identifiable as such. In this decision it mattered less whether readers would have been duped by a mocked up newspaper (although the Judge did not think it unlikely) than that the information had been presented as factual news, in particular by using headlines to make an allegation without readers being able to tell an opinion was being expressed. Although the statements were printed in campaign literature the claimant in this case brought defamation proceedings rather than an application under s. 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 which protects candidates from deliberate false allegations concerned with personal conduct at election time, and provides for the setting aside of an election result.