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United Kingdom: Articles in newspapers caused serious harm

Ingo Beckendorf

Damage to the reputation of a natural person caused by articles in newspapers must be proved and cannot be presumed. That was decided by the England and Wales High Court (Queen's Bench Division, Neutral Citation Number: [2015] EWHC 2242 (QB)) on 30 July 2015. The judgment dealt with five articles which were released in online and hard copy versions of several newspapers. The Court had to decide whether the articles caused or were likely to cause serious harm to the claimant under section 1(1) of the British Defamation Act 2013.

The plaintiff is a French national who had lived with his wife and son in the United Arab Emirates. The published articles reported about allegations made by his then ex-wife. She claimed to be a victim of domestic abuse. She said when she escaped her husband’s abuse together with her son, he falsely accused her of kidnapping their son and therefore, exposed her to the risk of being charged with kidnapping. Then he had brought their son back home and away from her. The plaintiff brought an action for defamation against the newspapers for the publication of the articles.

 

The High Court decided that the articles caused serious harm to the reputation of the plaintiff.

According to the High Court, section 1(1) Defamation Act 2013 requires the claimant to prove that the publication has in fact caused serious harm to his reputation or will probably do so in the future. It must be proved on the balance of probabilities that the article has changed the attitude of other people towards the plaintiff; it is not enough to just prove an inherent tendency caused by the report. The judge pointed out, that it may be possible to prove harm to the reputation by inference. However, the intention of the Parliament when adopting the Defamation Act 2013 was for the courts to consider all relevant circumstances. Therefore it was important to determine the effect of the publications on the plaintiff’s reputation, and not to only consider the words of the articles and their meaning. The plaintiff’s evidence under cross-examination and supporting witness statements satisfied the High Court that the plaintiff’s reputation was damaged by the articles.

 

Another relevant circumstance is the fact, that the claimant already had a bad reputation in the relevant sector of his life. But the House of Lords’ authority establishes that, as a rule, a defendant may not prove bad reputation by showing that the same allegations about the claimant have been published on other occasions, by other people, or by the defendant. That rule prohibits the defendants from relying on publications by others whom the claimant has not sued. But this general rule is modified by section 12 Defamation Act 1952 which rules that the fact that the plaintiff has sued for libel in respect of another publication of the same allegations, is admissible in the mitigation of damages.

Ingo Beckendorf is an academic worker at the Institute of European Media Law (EMR), Saarbrücken/Brüssel


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