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

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems and Network Administrator

Negotiable: Randstad Education Leicester: We are recruiting for a Systems and ...

English Teacher

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Group: English as an Additional Langua...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridgeshire

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album