Damage limitation from Mirror enough to stave off 'serious harm' for libel claimant in first test of Defamation Act

A judge has provided the first clues about the realities of the new Defamation Act’s ‘serious harm’ test.

Mr Justice Bean’s guidance came in a case involving the Sunday Mirror.

And his judgement (read it in full here) is certainly good news for the media: he threw the case out. It may well have succeeded under the old defamation laws.

The Mirror ran a story headlined "Millionaire Tory cashes in on TV Benefits Street". It featured James Turner Street, of Channel 4’s Benefit Street series. But it also mentioned a housing association called Midland Heart, and its owner, Ruth Cooke. They sued for defamation.

The Mirror asked the court to rule if the claimants had suffered "serious harm", the new test set out in the Defamation Act 2013.

Bean said they hadn’t, and that the Mirror’s actions following publication minimised the damage. They:

1.   Published an apology the following week. 

2.   Removed the offending paragraph from their website.

3.   Published a prominent apology online.

These steps "eradicated or minimised" the damage – and avoided serious harm, the Mirror argued.

Judge Bean said that many readers would have read the original article and the apology. That just left a small group who read the original article in isolation.

The case doesn’t mean that publishing a swift, prominent apology and correction will always head off a libel action. It depends how serious the original allegation was.

But the ruling gives editors a steer: a post-publication damage limitation exercise may help prevent libel cases getting to court.

Cleland Thom runs distance learning courses in media law

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