UK | Libel action against a newspaper filed only on the basis of an article’s headline – not maintainable: ‘Bane and antidote’ must be taken together

High Court of Justice Queen’s Bench Division Media and Communications List: Warby, J. dismissed a claim for initiating action for libel against a newspaper on the ground that the claim could not be maintained solely on the basis of the impugned heading of article, but the meaning of article must be derived after reading the entire article, instead.

Claimant sued the defendant for operating a website which published an article with the headline – “Two guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars”. The claimant was one of the two racers, who were charged for causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving and were found guilty by the jury, however, he had been acquitted of both the charges, and was convicted for careless driving. Claimant complained that he had been very seriously libeled by the said article. The main issue for resolution was whether the headline reflected the natural and ordinary meaning of the article and did the article mean that the claimant was one of two found guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars.

Counsel for the claimant Mr Sterling submitted that the report provided the implication that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the claimant of offences in question. He complained that the words of the article were clearly defamatory as the ordinary reasonable reader would inevitably perceive that the claimant unlawfully killed the lady, as it did not identify the offences of which the claimant was acquitted and convicted, and the article was also ignorant of any satisfactory antidote for its defamatory sentences. Counsel for the defendant,  De Wilde submitted that claimant could only complain of an imputation that defamed him – the excerpts of the article selected for complaint were internally incoherent and it could be understood from its context that the claimant was acquitted of both the offences of which another driver was convicted.

The Court relied on the decision in Charleston v. News Group Newspapers Ltd., [1995] 2 AC 65 in which the issue was whether the text of a newspaper article would, in any particular case, be sufficient for neutralizing the defamatory implication of a prominent headline. In that case, it was held that defamation would depend on the nature of libel which the headline conveyed and language of the text which was relied on to neutralize it, and also on the manner by which the whole of the relevant material was set out and presented.

Reliance was also placed on Chalmers v. Payne (1835) 2 Cr. M. & R 56, 159 where it was observed that “[If] in one part of the publication something disreputable to the plaintiff is stated, but that is removed by the conclusion, the bane and the antidote must be taken together.”

Thus, the Court opined that 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 neutralized by the remainder of the article.

It was observed that headlines commonly feature in bane and antidote arguments, and quite often there is a disconnect between the headline and body of an article. This is for the reason that headlines are made eye-catching, and a headline can create a libel, even if the text contains none.

In view of the above, the Court held that no reader of the whole article, could reasonably draw the conclusion that claimant was found guilty by a jury for unlawfully killing the lady. Thus, he could not complain of the article’s headline in isolation.  [William Alexander Spicer v. Commr. of Police of the Metropolis, [2019] EWHC 1439 (QB), decided on 07-06-2019]

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