Threshold of seriousness explained in 'man-eater' case
A libel claim by Nancy Dell’Olio against the Daily Mail was dismissed in a judgment handed down by Tugendhat J on 20 December 2011, after a hearing on meaning.
The judgment gives further guidance on the threshold of seriousness in libel, and the court’s approach to alternative defamatory meanings where the meaning complained of is held to be impossible.
Ms Dell’Olio complained of a Daily Mail article headlined ‘Return of the man-eater’ which said she had got her ‘claws’ into ‘another high-profile millionaire’ in the form of Sir Trevor Nunn. The 2-page spread gave considerable detail about the relationship, and quoted friends telling of how Sir Trevor had pursued Ms Dell’Olio and eventually won her over, so that they ended up behaving like “smitten 18-year-olds.”
The Claimant complained that she had been portrayed as a “serial gold-digger” who cynically seeks out men not for genuine emotional reasons but because they are millionaires and can fund her lavish and ostentatious lifestyle. The Defendant sought a ruling that the words could not bear that meaning. The Judge agreed, observing that whilst the article might be insulting that was not the same as being defamatory.
The Judge further held that although in ruling on meaning the court’s consideration is not limited by the meanings contended for by the parties, it is not for the court to hunt out possible defamatory meanings. Rather, the onus lies on a claimant to identify a defamatory meaning which the words can bear, and which she wishes to complain of as a libel. The Claimant had chosen not to submit an alternative meaning and therefore her claim would be dismissed.
Tugendhat J observed that the threshold of seriousness which must be met before a statement can be held defamatory needs to be applied with due regard to the jurisprudence on Articles 8 and 10, and that statements about the personal lives of individuals which impact on their reputation may not thereby engage Article 8.
5RB‘s Mark Warby QC appeared for the Defendant, and William Bennett of 5RB represented the Claimant.