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Law Column: Defamatory meaning and modern morality


Readers will no doubt remember from their libel training that the starting point for defamation is always meaning. What do the words actually mean and is the meaning the one the journalist intended?

A recent court case acts as a useful reminder of the key principles behind this tricky area. It is also a useful reminder of the principles behind defamatory meaning in the context of the constantly moving goal posts of modern morality.

The claimant in the action, Nick Brown, is the MP for Newcastle Upon Tyne East. His claim is against author Tom Bower and Faber & Faber, the publishers of Mr Bower’s book “Broken Vows – Tony Blair, the Tragedy of Power“.

The words complained of came in a passage discussing the resignation of Ron Davies, then Welsh secretary, after Prime Minister Blair was notified that he had been robbed by a male prostitute on Clapham Common:

In the ensuing discussion about gays in politics, journalist Matthew Parris declared on BBC TV that Mandelson was gay. Days later, Nick Brown, the new minister of agriculture was accused by the News of the World of paying £100 to rent boys in order to be kicked around a room, and admitted his sexuality.

The judge’s task was to determine the natural and ordinary meaning the hypothetical reasonable reader would attribute to the words complained of. That hypothetical reasonable reader not being naïve, but not unduly suspicious; able to read between the lines; can read an implication more readily than a lawyer and may indulge in a certain amount of loose thinking; but not avid for scandal or someone who would select one bad meaning where other non-defamatory meanings are available.

The reader is taken to have read the whole publication, so in this context, the whole of the book.

The claimant contended the words to mean “that the Claimant had been paying £100 a time to young male prostitutes to subject him to violent sexual acts or that there were strong grounds to so believe“.

The defendants argued a lower meaning, that “that there are grounds to suspect Nick Brown may have paid young men for consensual rough sex“.

The judge found that the ordinary reasonable reader would understand the words complained of to mean that at the date the allegation was made by the News of the World, there were grounds to suspect that the claimant had paid young male prostitutes to subject him to consensual rough sex.  In the context of the surrounding paragraphs, which set out the various pressures on the government at the time, the reader would understand that the reference to the claimant having “admitted his sexuality” was an admission of being gay, not that he was admitting the allegation made by the News of the World.

Due to concessions made by the defendant, the court did not have to rule on whether this meaning was actually defamatory of Mr Brown. However the judge noted that the case was a good example of the difficulty in determining what current society views to be immoral (there being no suggestion that the allegations were illegal).  The issue of whether it is defamatory to allege that an individual has paid individuals for consensual sex, whether “rough” or otherwise, is controversial.  As the judge said, “Judged by 2017 standards, do ‘right-thinking people’ regard such a statement as defamatory?

Asked by the judge, the defendants considered that such allegations were defamatory, but only in the context of the claimant being a Minister of the Crown. This raised the interesting question of whether it was possible for the same natural and ordinary meaning to be defamatory of one person but not another.

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  • December 5, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Of more interest is the risk radio and television take in snatching potentially legally damaging articles from newspapers ( it was the reported in the Daily Blah that…) without checking the facts. Do they not have journalists of their own?

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