LAW REPORT: 31 March 1995 Libel cannot be based on just the headlines

Charleston and another v News Group Newspapers Ltd. House of Lords

Charleston and another v News Group Newspapers Ltd.

House of Lords (Lord Goff of Chieveley, Lord Bridge of Harwich, Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle, Lord Mustill and Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead).

30 March 1995.

Since a basic principle in the law of libel is that a publication, read as a whole, has the single meaning understood by the reasonable reader, a libel action cannot be brought on the basis that, although the publication as a whole is not defamatory, some readers read only part of the publication, such as the headlines, which was capable of bearing a defamatory meaning.

The House of Lords dismissed an appeal by the plaintiffs, Anne Charleston and Ian Smith, from decisions of Mr Justice Blofeld and the Court of Appeal (The Independent, 14 January 1994) that the plaintiffs' libel action against the publishers and editor of the News of the World should be dismissed.

The plaintiffs, who acted in the television serial Neighbours, complained about the headlines, photographs and captions published in the News of the World in which their faces were superimposed on a photograph of a man and a woman engaged in pornographic poses. The text of the article made it clear that the plaintiffs were "unwitting" stars of a pornographic computer game.

Although the plaintiffs conceded that the publication, if considered as a whole, was not defamatory, the plaintiffs claimed that "limited readers" would have only read the headlines and looked at the photographs, which were capable of conveying a meaning injurious to the plaintiffs' reputations, and the plaintiffs should be entitled to damages for the injury suffered in the estimation of that group of readers.

Kenneth Craig (Andrew Moore & Co) for the plaintiffs; Charles Gray QC and James Price (Farrer & Co) for the newspaper.

LORD BRIDGE said that whether the matter was slanderous or not was a question for the jury who were to take the whole together; the bane and antidote must be taken together. It was often a debatable question which the jury must resolve whether the antidote was effective to neutralise the bane, and in determining that question, the jury might consider the mode of publication and the relative prominence given to different parts of it. In the present case there was no dispute that the headlines, photographs and article constituted a single publication nor that the antidote in the article was sufficient to neutralise any bane in the headlines and photographs.

The first basic principle in the law of libel was that, where no legal innuendo was alleged to arise from extrinsic circumstances known to some readers, the "natural and ordinary meaning" to be ascribed to the words of an allegedly defamatory publication was the meaning, including any inferential meaning, which the words would convey to the mind of the ordinary, reasonable, fair-minded reader.

The corollary was that, although a combination of words might convey different meanings to the minds of different readers, the jury in a libel action, applying the first principle, was required to determine the single meaning which the publication conveyed to the notional reasonable reader and base their verdict, and any award of damages, on the assumption that this was the one sense in which all readers would have understood it.

In an action where no legal innuendo was alleged, that prevented either side from calling witnesses to say what they understood the allegedly defamatory publication to mean. It would be destructive of the principle that a publication had "the one and only meaning which the readers as reasonable men should have collectively understood the words to bear" to allow the plaintiff to invite the jury to infer that different groups of readers read different parts of the entire publication and for that reason understood it to mean different things, some defamatory, some not.

Whether the text would be sufficient to neutralise the defamatory implication of a prominent headline would sometimes be a nicely-balanced question for the jury. But the proposition that headlines plus photographs might find a claim in libel in isolation from its related text because some readers only read headlines was unacceptable. Those readers who looked at the headlines and photographs and nothing more could hardly be described as ordinary, reasonable, fair-minded readers.

Lord Goff, Lord Jauncey and Lord Mustill agreed. Lord Nicholls gave a concurring speech.

Ying Hui Tan, Barrister

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
A picture taken on February 11, 2014 at people walking at sunrise on the Trocadero Esplanade, also known as the Parvis des droits de l'homme (Parvis of Human Rights), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor