Department for Education defeat defamation claim

The Secretary of State for Education was successful in defending a defamation  claim brought in respect of  republication of a quote from a spokesperson from the National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL) by the Newcastle Chronicle on its website.

Following trial, Anthony Metzer QC sitting as deputy judge of the High Court handed down judgment in Alsaifi v Secretary of State for Education [2019] EWHC 1413 holding that there was not sufficient reference to the Claimant and the words were not defamatory of the Claimant; there was no serious harm and in any event the Defendant would have succeeded on its qualified privilege defence.

The judgment sets out guideline principles for determining meaning and source liability for republication where a person (“a source”) issues a press release or gives a quote to a journalist for publication (“source material”) and that material is later included in a media publication:

  • The Defendant is only responsible for the wording of the quote. It is not responsible for any errors or misleading aspect of the context in which it appears.
  • The starting point is that the source material should not be looked at in blinkers as if the rest of the article did not exist
  • If the article read as a whole does not bear a defamatory meaning, the Claimant may not artificially select only the source material in order to assert a defamatory meaning which in context the words do not bear.
  • The source cannot be held responsible for inaccuracy, spin or additional material added by the media publisher which alters the meaning of the source material to make it defamatory (or more seriously defamatory) than it was in isolation.
  • The source is entitled to assume that the source material will appear in the context of an account that is fair and accurate
  • If the account is not “fair and accurate” and the effect is to give source material a defamatory meaning that it would not otherwise bear, the source should not be held liable first because he is not liable for the media publishers inaccuracy which is beyond his control; secondly because a person cannot be held liable for republication he did not intend, authorise or foresee and thirdly as it would be contrary to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights for a party who makes a non-defamatory press statement on a matter of public interest.

5RB’s Christina Michalos QC appeared for the Defendant. A 5RB case report of the decision can be found here.