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Law Column: Headlines in context

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The decision from the latest in a series of defamation cases considering issues of meaning has been handed down from the High Court, and provides yet another useful restatement of a core principle.

The case of Spicer v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis concerned an article published on the Metropolitan Police website which set out the details of the Claimant’s recent court appearance in which he was acquitted of charges of causing death by dangerous driving and causing serious injury by dangerous driving, but convicted of the lesser charge of careless driving.

The Claimant alleged that the headline of the article; “Two guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars”,  implied that he was responsible for the death of a young woman who had been struck and killed by the driver of the other car involved in the incident.

The Met denied that this was the case and instead asserted that due to the fact that the Article was a press release from the Police, its readers were most likely to be those with a professional interest in the case, and criminal justice generally, thus meaning that they would be able to pick out the essential parts of the piece and avoid any misunderstanding.

In light of the dispute, the parties opted for a preliminary issue trial to determine the meaning of the Article, including the headline.

Mr Justice Warby, sitting in the High Court, held that the headline itself could not be taken out of context in order to sustain an artificial defamatory meaning.   In his judgement, he stated that:

“Established legal principle holds that the meaning of a published article or statement must be collected from the article or statement as a whole.  The law does not permit a claimant to sue for damages in respect of a headline, however defamatory, if the headline and article are mismatched and the impact of the headline is contradicted or neutralised by the remainder of the article.”

Making reference to the historic case of Chalmers v Payne [1835], Warby J further stated that it is often the case that headlines are written by editors who are “aiming for something eye-catching, and may be less familiar with the nuance of the text than the author” and that this can sometimes lead to the creation of a libel in the headline of an article – even if in the main body of the text there is none.

As stated in the case of Chalmers, the two elements of the piece must be read together in the context of each other – the “bane and antidote must be taken together”.  In other words, a headline cannot be simply read in isolation without also considering the text of the article that follows in determining the meaning.

Following consideration of all the relevant factors, Warby J. determined that in this case the Claimant had attempted to select passages artificially from the article in question in an effort to support his contended meaning relating to the headline.

Whilst it was still determined that the Article itself was capable of bearing a defamatory meaning, the actual meaning found by Warby J was one far less serious than that which was originally pleaded by the Claimant.   The case is ongoing and it remains to be seen whether the police will be able to mount a successful defence in light of this development.

For now, this ruling serves as a useful, and welcome, reminder of the fact that a prospective claimant cannot simply ‘cherry-pick’ those excerpts of an article or its headline which support their claim.  When it comes to meaning and headlines, context is key.

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