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Carruthers v Associated Newspapers Limited, Carruthers v News Group Newspapers Limited [2019] EWHC 33 (QB)

March 27, 2019

 

Background

 

Ms Carruthers, who is in her 60s, was employed by Haringey Council as a Deputy Assistant Director of Children’s Safeguarding and Head of Services or Children In Need of Support and Protection. It was reported by Associated Newspapers Limited (ANL) and News Group Newspapers (NGN) that she had been sending sexual messages and images to a man she met on a dating website on Haringey Council’s premises and expressed that her behaviour was ‘inappropriate and unacceptable’.

 

Both articles made reference to Haringey Council’s tumultuous past as the council was involved in the Baby P scandal and the death of Victoria Climbie several years ago; Ms Carruthers was not involved in the scandals. Ms Carruthers claimed that the defamatory meanings of the articles arose from the intermingling of the scandals with her story in the publications.

 

Ms Carruthers alleged that as a result of the publication of the articles in March 2017, she was suspended, and she later resigned.

 

 

Issues

 

Both ANL and NGN issued an Application Notice seeking a trial of Preliminary Issues to determine the meaning of the words and whether the words were factual statements or opinion. If the words that ANL and NGN used were opinion, then the court was asked to look at whether the defence of honest opinion could succeed.

 

 

Submissions

 

Carruthers submitted that the meanings of the articles were largely to be derived from the juxtaposition of the articles’ mention of the Haringey Council’s scandals with the story of her sending sexual messages. The way these two stories intertwined with each other within the headlines, the article and in the photos that displayed Baby P and the claimant side by side, could falsely imply that she was connected to these scandals. It was acknowledged that the articles voicing disapproval of Ms Carruthers’ behaviour were opinion; however, it was argued that alleging a link between the claimant with the two notorious scandals of Haringey Council was a statement of fact.

 

ANL and NGN argued that the ordinary reader would not ignore the clear chronology of the articles and not assume that the two distinct strands of the article, the council’s scandals and the claimant’s story, were related to Ms Carruthers. It was submitted that the only possible defamatory aspects of the Claimant’s meaning were expressions of opinion; however, it was not accepted that an allegation that someone had sent sexual messages of herself to another man in itself was defamatory.  

 

 

Decision

 

Mr Justice Nicklin said he could understand why the juxtaposition of the photos and the allegations made against her with reports of the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases might lead some readers to make a connection between these two matters. However, he believed that the reasonable reader would understand that Ms Carruthers was not associated with the Victoria Climbie and Baby P scandals. Although there may be some readers who only read the headlines or the first few paragraphs, Mr Justice Nicklin referred to Charleston v News Group Newspaper [1995] 2 AC 65, 70 in mentioning that such readers were not reasonable readers. The ordinary reasonable reader is a reader who reads the whole of the publication as the context of the words complained about will have an impact on the meaning overall. In terms of the chronology of the events, the Baby P and Victoria Climbie scandals happened 11 and 18 years ago respectively, and the events concerning the claimant were recent events. Thus, the ordinary reasonable reader could not interpret the articles to mean that the claimant posed a “serious danger and risk to vulnerable children in her charge” which would be an unreasonable meaning. As such, Mr Justice Nicklin declared that where the article states that the claimant was messaging and sending sexual pictures to a man from a dating site was factual and not defamatory.

 

Additionally, when the article voiced their disapproval of the claimant’s behaviour by calling it ‘unprofessional,’ it was an expression of opinion. He stated:

 

“The fact that the claimant had sent the messages/pictures whilst she was at work is not something that is stated to be a breach of the Council’s rules. Therefore, the expression of condemnation is a value judgment on that conduct and would readily have been recognised as such. It is not a requirement for any potential honest opinion defence, but, in this instance, readers of each article could make up their own minds about whether they thought the conduct of the Claimant was worthy of the expressed criticism” [23].

 

As a result, the defendants were entitled to summary judgment on the libel claim. The defendants contended that the honest person could have expressed the opinions in the article based upon these admitted facts. The claimant, however, submitted that she had a real prospect of demonstrating that there were other relevant, exculpatory facts that could affect whether the hypothetical honest person could have expressed the opinion. Mr Justice Nicklin agreed with the defendants that the facts which the claimant sought to rely on could not properly be described as exculpatory and was irrelevant to the objective test under s.3(4)(a) of the Defamation Act 2013. There was no basis to conclude that both defendants did not honestly hold the opinion they wrote in the article, thus the defence of honest opinion was bound to succeed.

 

There was no application to strike out the claim under the Data Protection Act 1998 or for misuse of private information which could continue to trial.

 

 

Comments

 

As in Branson v Bower [2002] QB 737, the defence was not to be “whittled away by detailed and subtle arguments as to how a different commentator might have viewed the facts or given them a different emphasis” [54]. The ultimate test is honesty rather than rationality - whether the defendant did in fact hold the opinion, not whether they should have done.  

 

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