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

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