Barron MP & Ors v Collins MEP [2015]

Barron MP & Ors v Collins MEP [2015] EWHC 1125 (QB) (29 April 2015) concerned three Labour MPs, the Claimants, who all represented areas within the Rotherham area and the Defendant, the MEP for Rotherham, a member of UKIP. The Defendant made a speech at a UKIP conference which was televised live on BBC Parliament, twitter, the Press Association Mediapoint wire service and in whole or in part on the website operated by UKIP.

The main subject of the speech was the sexual exploitation of children from Rotherham which had become a national scandal after a report published in August 2014. The Defendant referred in her speech to Rotherham Council and “the three Labour MPs for the Rotherham area” which the Claimants understood to have meant as referring to each of them

The Claimants in their action against the Defendant alleged that the meaning of the speech was that the three of them “knew of the horrific sexual abuse of around 1,400 children in Rotherham over sixteen years but failed to act, keeping quiet and allowing the abuse to continue because it suited their political purposes” and it is their case that this is an allegation of fact.

The Defendant did not disagree that her speech had referred to the First and Second Claimants but she did not agree that a reasonable person would believe it had referred to the Third Claimant. She further disagreed with the meaning pleaded by the Claimants which she contended did not represent what her speech had said.

She argued her speech was political and, had her words been properly analysed they would not be found to include any allegation of fact concerning the Claimants, they would however, show that she was expressing her opinion that at the height of the sexual exploitation, the Labour MPs in Rotherham “are likely to have known that sexual exploitation was a serious problem in the area.”

The Defendant’s argument was that the words were factual, meaning “in light of the widespread knowledge amongst members of the Labour Party in Rotherham, which had been running the council for years, that child sexual exploitation was rife in the town, there are reasons to believe that the Claimants, as members of the same political party and MPs at the time, knew that sexual exploitation was a serious problem.”

The matter came before The Honourable Mr Justice Warby who had to decide each of the three preliminary issues, the subject of the Claimants’ action, as to:

  1. the meaning of the words complained of
  2. were the words fact or comment and
  3. whether they referred to the Third Claimant

In his judgment, he set out the Defendant’s speech and underlined the words complained of.

In deciding the issues, he looked to the principles in Jeynes v News Magazines Limited [2008] EWCA Civ which he observed demonstrated how to decide what a meaning is

  1. The governing principle is reasonableness.
  2. The hypothetical reasonable reader is not naïve but he is not unduly suspicious. He can read between the lines. He can read in an implication more readily than a lawyer and may indulge in a certain amount of loose thinking but he must be treated as being a man who is not avid for scandal and someone who does not, and should not, select one bad meaning where other non-defamatory meanings are available.
  3. Over-elaborate analysis is best avoided.
  4. The intention of the publisher is irrelevant.
  5.  The article must be read as a whole, and any ‘bane and antidote’ taken together.
  6. The hypothetical reader is taken to be representative of those who would read the publication in question.
  7. In delimiting the range of permissible defamatory meanings, the court should rule out any meaning which, can only emerge as the product of some strained, or forced, or utterly unreasonable interpretation.
  8. It is not enough to say that by some person or another the words might be understood in a defamatory sense.

and the Defamation Act 2013 which replaced the defence of fair comment with honest opinion. He noted that both Counsel referred to s 3(2) which favoured the common law approach Mr Justice Warby had applied in the case of Yeo.

He defined Section 3(2) as “sets out the first condition for the statutory defence of honest opinion:” and continued “The first condition is that the statement complained of was a statement of opinion.”

He dealt with the issues of meaning, fact and opinion in that sequence and made reference to the Singh case where the Court of Appeal had remarked that it may not be always the right way to deal with the issues in that order “To do so “may stifle the answer” to the second question”.

He watched the BBC Parliament programme and gave his own impression from hearing the speech that the Defendant knowingly made accusations against the Claimants that they were aware of the sexual abuse but had chosen not to do anything about it. He noted down three meanings he gave from listening to the Defendant’s speech comparing them to Counsel’s skeleton arguments, which did not make him alter his impression.

The judge found the following three meanings, the first of fact and the latter two of comment:
That the three MPs

“knew many of the details of the scandalous child sexual exploitation that took place in Rotherham over a period of sixteen years, in the course of which an estimated 1,400 children were raped, beaten, plied with alcohol and drugs, and threatened with violence by men of Asian origin, yet deliberately chose not to intervene but to allow the abuse to continue.”

The other meanings he attributed from the speech were that they

“acted in this way for motives of political correctness, political cowardice, or political selfishness”

and that each

“was thereby guilty of misconduct so grave that it was or should be criminal, as it aided and abetted the perpetrators and made the Claimants just as culpable as the perpetrators.” With regard to the Third Claimant Mr Justice Warby considered the Defendant’s words did in their natural and ordinary meaning refer to her.

“The law must accommodate trenchant expression on political issues, but it would be wrong to achieve this by distorting the ordinary meaning of words, or treating as opinion what the ordinary person would understand as an allegation of fact. To do so would unduly restrict the rights of those targeted by defamatory political speech.”

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