Simpson v Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd
References:  EWHC 77 (QB),  EWCA Civ 772
Court: High Court, Court of Appeal
Dates of judgments: 21 January 2015, 26 July 2016
The Court of Appeal has ruled that the meaning of a defamatory statement does not
necessarily establish the intensity of its sting.
Facts of the case
Daniel Simpson is a Premier League footballer who plays for Leicester City. On 16 November 2012 Mirror Group Newspapers Ltd (“MGN”) published in the Daily Mirror an article entitled “EXCLUSIVE: PREM STAR’S PREGNANT GIRLFRIEND. Tulisa is just a home-wrecker.. I’m devastated..”. The article detailed allegations that Simpson had broken off his relationship with Stephanie Ward, the mother of his child and who at the time had been pregnant with his second child, to pursue a relationship with singer and TV personality Tulisa Contostavlos. Simpson sued for damages for libel, in a claim which predated the coming into force of the Defamation Act 2013. MGN contended that the allegations in the article were true, relying on the pre-Defamation Act 2013 defence of justification.
High Court decision
As is often the case with proceedings of this type, the claimant applied to the court for an order that the court try as preliminary issues the meaning of the words complained of and whether they were defamatory of the claimant. The natural and ordinary meaning of the words for the purposes of a defamation claim is the single meaning that they would convey to the ordinary reader. The meanings put before the court by the claimant and the defendant contained important differences. The claimant contended that the article portrayed him and Ms Ward as being in a stable committed relationship, living together with their daughter as a family unit, prior to his relationship with Ms Contostavlos. The meaning put forward by the defendant was an amended draft version of the meaning it had originally pleaded. It contended that the article portrayed the claimant as being unfaithful to his loyal and long-term partner with whom he was still in a sexual and long term relationship.
Warby J considered the meaning of the words by reference to the factors applied in the case of Jeynes v News Magazines Ltd  EWCA Civ 130 and found that they contained the following meaning:
“by entering a romantic relationship with the celebrity Tulisa Contostavlos the Claimant was unfaithful to his loyal partner Stephanie Ward, with whom he was in a long-term and committed relationship, living with their daughter as a family; he did so despite Miss Ward having sacrificed her legal career to have his children, and being, as he knew, pregnant with their next child; and by doing so he callously destroyed his relationship with Ms Ward and broke up an established family unit which was soon to be joined by the child they were expecting."
This meaning was similar to the meaning contended by the claimant. In deriving the meaning of the words complained of, Warby J said that the article’s title referring to Ms Contostavlos as a “homewrecker” and a further three “homewrecker” references in the body of the article were important. Also, important were the photos of the claimant, Ms Ward and their daughter together, repeated references to Ms Ward as the claimant’s girlfriend, a reference that the claimant had been with Ms Ward for 6 years and a reference to a home shared in Newcastle.
Warby J acknowledged that the article referred to the claimant’s relationships with other women and that the impression conveyed by the article was that the claimant had indulged in several infidelities over the course of the relationship. However, the ordinary reader would still understand that the claimant had been in a long-term committed relationship, living as a family with his child, which he had broken up by his latest infidelity.
Strike out of the Defence
To be successful a defence of justification must meet the whole defamatory sting of the statements complained of including any defamatory imputation of substance.
Counsel for the claimant contended that the defendant’s defence of justification, original or amended, was incapable of defending the claim in full. The amended form did not justify the element of the defamatory meaning that Ms Ward gave up her legal career to have children with the claimant, an element which made the claimant’s breach of faith with Ms Ward appear graver. Nor did the defence justify that the claimant had broken up an established family unit.
Warby J struck out the defence of justification stating that the particulars do not support findings that the claimant and Ms Ward were living together as a family with their daughter at the time the claimant began his relationship with Ms Contostavlos.
Court of Appeal
MGN sought permission to appeal Warby J’s determination on meaning and his order striking out the defence. Permission was only granted in relation to the latter.
The defendant advanced that the particulars of justification could meet the whole defamatory sting of the article even though they did not allege that Ms Ward and the claimant were cohabiting. In particular, a couple may have a committed relationship without living together all the time. The point on Ms Ward giving up her legal career for the claimant is relevant in that it demonstrates her loyalty to him, which the defendant can prove. The claimant contended that the points on Ms Ward’s legal career and the claimant breaking up a family unit would not have been incorporated into the defamatory meaning if they were only peripheral.
The court said that to strike out the defence Warby J had to satisfy himself that no reasonable fact finder could conclude that proof of the particulars of justification would prove the truth of the words complained of in the meaning found by the Judge. The essence of the sting is the assertion of a selfish disruption of the committed family relationship with father, mother, child, and another child on the way. The extent to which factors of co-habitation and Ms Ward’s career add to this essential sting are matters upon which reasonable people might disagree. In some cases, the meaning of the words and their defamatory sting (and its intensity) ineluctably go together; but not always. In these circumstances, the meaning of the published words does not, drive the conclusion as to the intensity of the sting.
It appears that the Court of Appeal judges have separated the meaning and the sting of a defamatory statement when previously the two words were synonymous with one another. This could potentially give defendants a second bite of the cherry if a meaning is determined which does not accord with the defendant’s defence of justification. It also means that preliminary hearings on meaning will have less value in justification cases as why would a claimant agree to such a hearing when the arguments on meaning will be raised again at trial in respect of the sting.
The claimant’s solicitors have confirmed that they will seek permission to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court so watch the space.