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Law Report: Scientist defamed: Skuse v Granada Television. Court of Appeal (Sir Thomas Bingham, Master of the Rolls, Lord Justice Beldam and Lord Justice Kennedy), 30 March 1993

The natural and ordinary meaning of the words and images in a World in Action programme about the soundness of the convictions of the Birmingham Six, which said the Crown evidence at the trial of Dr Frank Skuse, the Home Office forensic scientist, was wrong, bore the defamatory meaning that Dr Skuse failed to show the skill, knowledge, care and thoroughness to be expected of him.

The Court of Appeal allowed Dr Frank Skuse's appeal against a preliminary ruling by Mr Justice Brooke on the defamatory meaning of words complained of by Dr Skuse.

On 28 October 1985 Granada broadcast a programme entitled In the Interests of Justice in its World in Action series. The programme presented serious doubts about the soundness of the convictions of the Birmingham Six of causing death and injury by planting bombs in public houses in Birmingham. The last 10 minutes of the programme dealt with the scientific evidence in the case. The programme stated that Dr Skuse, the Home Office forensic scientist who gave evidence for the Crown, told the jury, that using the Griess test he was 99 per cent certain two of the Birmingham Six had handled explosives and an innocent compound nitro-cellulose could not give the same result. It stated that the Griess test was only a screen test which did not prove that any substance was present, and that Griess tests carried out on other substances gave identical results to explosives, which Dr Skuse had told the court could not happen.

Dr Skuse brought a libel action against Granada contending the words and visual images meant that he had misrepresented to the court negligently the effect of the scientific tests carried out. Granada contended that the programme bore no defamatory meaning or a meaning less defamatory than alleged. Granada's case was that the programme said his evidence was wrong, but anyone could be wrong without being negligent or incompetent and it would be a serious blow to investigative journalism if a man could not be said to be wrong without defaming him.

Mr Justice Brooke ruled that the words bore the meaning that there were reasonable grounds to suspect that Dr Skuse was negligent as a forensic scientist and expert witness because he based his conclusions on a screen test and that caused or contributed to the wrongful imprisonment of the Birmingham Six.

Desmond Browne QC and Stephen Suttle (Peter Carter Ruck & Partners) for Dr Skuse; Sydney Kentridge QC and Patrick Moloney (Goodman Derrick & Co) for Granada.

SIR THOMAS BINGHAM MR, giving the judgment, said that in determing the meaning of the words and their defamatory sense, if any, the court gave the material the natural and ordinary meaning it would have conveyed to the ordinary reasonable viewer watching the programme once in 1985. The hypothetical reasonable viewer was not naive but he was not unduly suspicious. The court should be cautious of over-elaborate analysis, was entitled to have regard to the impression the material complained of made on it, and should not be too literal in its approach.

A statement should be taken to be defamatory if it would tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally or would be likely to affect a person adversely in the estimation of reasonable people generally.

The defamatory meaning pleaded by a plaintiff was to be treated as the most injurious meaning the words were capable of bearing. The court was not at this stage concerned with any possible defence to the claim.

The reasonable viewer would appreciate that as a professional scientist giving evidence for the Crown in a momentous criminal trial Dr Skuse was under a duty to use the utmost care and to be completely thorough. Overall the viewer would feel that Dr Skuse had been seriously at fault in giving evidence, damning to the defendants, which was unreliable and shown to be so by the later investigations which could and should have been carried out by Dr Skuse, especially as his attention had been drawn to the possibility of an innocent explanation for the positive result.

The natural and ordinary meaning of the material complained of was that, as a Home Office forensic scientist investigating the bombings and giving evidence for the Crown at the trial, Dr Skuse failed to show the skill, knowledge, care and thoroughness to be expected of him in that role.