Publications containing more than one defamatory allegation

What happens when a publication contains two defamatory statements but a claimant selects only one for complaint?

The problem is relatively common and was most recently considered by the Court of Appeal in the context of a libel action brought by Carlton Communications PLC against News Group Newspapers, over articles in the News of the World which alleged that a number of programmes in The Cook Report series were faked.

The newspaper’s reports also mentioned that Carlton had previously been fined £2m by the ITC after The Connection, a documentary about the Colombian drugs trade, was found to have been faked.

Carlton sought to confine its complaint to the fact that the articles meant that The Cook Report programmes broadcast by them were fakes.

News Group contended that the articles meant that Carlton was responsible for programmes which they knew or should have known were fakes, and sought to justify this in part by reference to The Connection.

This part of the newspaper’s defence was struck out by a judge, who accepted Carlton’s argument that the articles were incapable of bearing this wider meaning and that the parts of the articles referring to The Connection constituted a separate "sting".

The newspaper appealed.

The Court of Appeal, upholding the appeal, said that the articles had to be looked at in their broad context and should be approached from the point of view of the ordinary reader.

The starting point was that, where a claimant chooses to complain about part of a whole publication, the jury is entitled to see and read the whole publication.

In this case, the question that had to be resolved was whether the defamatory allegations were indeed unrelated, as Carlton argued, or whether they were capable of forming a single allegation.

The Court of Appeal decided that the articles could bear the sting that Carlton was responsible for more than one fake programme and could be said to have caused or permitted a culture to develop in which fakery was possible.

This constituted a single libellous allegation, and the newspaper could rely on The Connection as part of its evidence.

 

Philip Wheeler is a solicitor in the media deparment of Farrer & Co, which acts for News Group

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