Melania Trump apology not defamatory of author

Apology did not mean author of original article was culpable, Nicklin J rules

The High Court has handed down judgment today following a preliminary issue trial of meaning in Burleigh v Telegraph Media Group Limited [2020] EWHC 2359 (QB).

The Claimant, a journalist at Newsweek, had brought a libel claim against the publisher of the Daily Telegraph after it had published an apology to First Lady Melania Trump in January 2019. The apology concerned an article which had been published in the previous week’s Telegraph Magazine about the First Lady. The Claimant was the author of the original article.

While the apology did not identify the Claimant, Ms Burleigh contended that the apology to the First Lady was defamatory of her. The Claimant said that readers who knew she had written the original article would understand the apology to mean that she had negligently or maliciously written a piece so littered with serious and defamatory falsehoods about Mrs Trump that it should not have been published and justified the payment of substantial damages to her, as well as a full and prompt retraction and apology.

Following a trial of meaning as a preliminary issue on the papers, Mr Justice Nicklin rejected the Claimant’s case. He agreed with the Defendant’s submissions that the apology was not defamatory of Ms Burleigh and did not impute any culpability on her part in writing the original article. The Court held that there was no “implication – or a ‘nudge and a wink’ – to prompt the reader to draw a conclusion that the Claimant was culpable for the publication of the identified ‘false statements’.” Accordingly, the apology was not defamatory of the Claimant at common law. This conclusion was reached by applying the well-known Koutsogiannis principles on meaning.

5RB’s Adrienne Page QC and Jonathan Scherbel-Ball appeared on behalf of Telegraph Media Group Limited, instructed by Ince Gordon Dadds.

The Judgment is here.