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Law Column: High Court considers limits of free speech in Dyson libel case



In a judgment handed down on 1st December, Mr Justice Jay ruled in favour of the Defendant in the case of Dyson v. MGN Ltd by upholding the publisher’s defence of honest opinion and finding that in any event, the Claimant (well known inventor and industrialist Sir James Dyson) had failed to discharge the burden of proving serious harm to his reputation.

The Defendant had published an article in both the online and print versions of the Mirror in January 2022 written by columnist Brian Reade.

The article concerned the relocation of the global headquarters of Dyson to Singapore.  As the judge pointed out, it described Sir James in unfavourable terms as “the vacuum cleaner tycoon who championed Vote Leave due to the economic opportunities it would bring to British industry before moving his global head office to Singapore”.

The meaning of the Article was not in dispute, as the parties had already sought determination of this matter at a trial of preliminary issue in the summer of 2022.  In his ruling at the time, Mr. Justice Nicklin held that the defamatory meaning of the article was “that the Claimant was a hypocrite who had screwed the country and set a poor moral example to young people”.

The Mirror put forward a defence of honest opinion pursuant to section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013.  At the 2022 trial of preliminary issues, it had already been determined by Nicklin J that the article was an opinion with a factual basis, and that as required by law, the factual basis for the opinion had been set out.

All that remained therefore, in the context of the requirements set out in section 3, was for Mr Justice Jay to consider whether the facts relied upon were true and whether an honest person could have held such an opinion based on those facts.

First, addressing the veracity of the facts relied upon, the Judge did not accept the Claimant’s arguments that the article inflated the significance of the movement of two highly ranked company executives to Singapore, characterising the event as a mere relocation.

In dismissing this approach, Mr Justice Jay found that the Claimant’s explanation “significantly understated the reasons for, and saliency of, the move”.

Second, it was also argued by the Claimant that Mr Reade had “cherry-picked” from the available facts to build a factual basis which supported the opinion he wished to convey.  The judge held that Mr Reade was entitled to be selective and that there is no obligation for the facts on which he based his opinion to be fair and balanced.

Mr Justice Jay noted that such an obligation would have serious ramifications for free speech and that if this were the case, “a journalist would struggle to say anything potentially controversial without conducting assiduous research”.

Turning to the question of whether an honest person could have held the opinion based on the identified facts, Mr Justice Jay noted that, at its core, this case was not about free speech in general but rather, about its “permissible limits”.

Here, given that the author of the article “fell short of accusing [Sir James] of dishonesty”, the “scope for honest comment, however wounding and unbalanced, was very considerable indeed”.

The judge went on to state that in his view, the author had remained inside “the wide margin available to him” and that on this basis, the honest opinion defence had been successfully made out.

In addition, Mr Justice Jay held that Sir James had been unsuccessful in demonstrating that he had suffered serious harm to his reputation as a result of the publications.

In his reasoning, Mr Justice Jay accepted that the article had been intended to be light-hearted and that given that the move to Singapore had taken place in 2019, the events were “very much old news” which had already been reported widely.  This meant that most people were likely to have already formed a view about the changes to the company before the publication of Mr Reade’s column in 2022.

Accordingly, because the article did not cause serious harm to Sir James’ reputation, it could not be defamatory of him in the eyes of the law.

This case provides a very useful summary of the principles governing both serious harm and honest opinion.  In the latter respect, the decision provides a helpful reminder of the wide margins that exist when determining the “permissible limits” of honest opinion.

Whilst it is arguable that Mr. Justice Jay merely applied established legal principles, the robust way he analysed the issues and upheld the defence of honest opinion is striking. For that, journalists everywhere will surely be thankful.