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The Law Column: Put down the claim form and step away from your personal feelings

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There have been a string of cases whereby the Court has reminded claimants that they should not allow their personal feelings to taint their claims when it comes to libel. It must be hard to read something about yourself that you believe is defamatory and then take a step back and consider what other people may think when reading the same thing. However the recent case of Lord Mohamed Sheikh and Associated Newspapers Limited is a reminder that that is exactly what you should do.

Lord Sheikh is a member of the House of Lords. The Mail Online published an article under the headline “EXCLUSIVE: Top Tory peer’s appearance at Corbyn’s ‘hate conference’ in Tunisia comes after YEARS of rubbing shoulders with Islamists, hate preachers and Holocaust deniers”. Lord Sheikh complained about the photographs and the words used in the article. There was a preliminary hearing listed to deal with the issue of the meaning of the words and to also consider whether or not the statements were factual or opinion.

Lord Sheikh claimed that the article meant he “is a supporter of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, violent Islamist jihad, terrorism and hate-preaching”. The Mail said that in fact the article meant that Lord Sheikh had “irresponsibly and/or uncritically rubbed shoulders with organisations and individuals who have variously espoused and/or expressed some or all of the anti-Semitic views and support for violence against Jewish and/or Israeli and/or Western interests which are mentioned in the article and in some cases supported them in circumstances that found a reasonable suspicion that the Claimant has tacitly condoned at least some of these views [in the sense of not condoning those repugnant views or at least some of them when he should] and/or positions such as to merit an investigation into the matter by the Chairman of his party”.

The Judge highlighted that the court’s task is to identify the natural and ordinary meaning of the words and consider what the single meaning would be conveyed to the ordinary, reasonable reader. We all love the ordinary, reasonable reader. He is the man on the Clapham omnibus – a person of ordinary intelligence, experience and education, who is neither perverse, nor morbid nor suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He can and does read between the lines. He reads the entire matter complained of and determines whether each imputation arises and is defamatory in that context. He does not engage in over-elaborate analysis in a search for hidden meanings.

It is important to remember that deciding the meaning of the words is an objective exercise and the court does not admit evidence of what readers actually took the offending words to mean. In this case, the Judge decided that the words meant something that neither party argued. He said that the ordinary reasonable reader would take the words to mean that Lord Sheikh “has a long history of support for, or close association with, people and organisations that express or hold anti-Semitic and other extremist views and attitudes which, despite his attempts to explain it, (1) provides strong grounds for suspecting that he is secretly an anti-Semite who approves of and sympathises with Holocaust denial, Islamist jihad and hate-preaching, which he is prepared knowingly and actively to support; and (2) is shocking and disturbing”.

In this case, the Judge read the article online before he read or heard any of the parties’ arguments and without concentrating on the meanings put forward by either side. This meant he could really step into the shoes of the reasonable reader. Method acting at its finest!

Though Lord Sheikh also argued that meaning could be inferred from the text he wasn’t able to point to any words in the article whereby the Mail had said that Lord Sheikh supported or adopted anti-Semite, Holocaust denial, violent Islamist jihad, terrorism or hate-preaching views. There was no suggestion in the article that Lord Sheikh had ever voiced any of these opinions. It was simply Lord Sheikh’s personal opinion that readers would presume he held these views.

The Judge disagreed and said that whilst some readers may conclude that Lord Sheikh was in fact an anti-Semitic sympathiser and held extreme views, this was irrelevant. The meaning must derive from an objective analysis of the actual words used and not from the Claimant’s personal feelings.

Defamation claims are by their very nature often highly emotionally charged and this adds a level of complexity to their resolution. Cases such as this serve as a useful reminder that personal feelings must be set aside, and that objectivity is key when determining the meaning of an allegedly defamatory statement.