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Contostavlos & Anor v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2014]

June 6, 2014

In Contostavlos & Anor v News Group Newspapers Ltd [2014] EWHC 1339 (QB)
The First Claimant, a singer and former judge on X-Factor and the Second Claimant, a professional footballer brought an action in Defamation against the Defendant after an article, dated 16th November 2012, appeared in one of the Defendants newspapers, The Sun and also online.

The article suggested that both Claimants were involved in an affair and contained a response from the Second Claimant’s partner, Stephanie Ward, in relation to this. She also mentioned in the article that she was having a second child with her partner and was 3 months pregnant.

Both Claimants issued defamation proceedings against the publisher of the Sun newspaper.

The First Claimant pleaded that the defamatory meaning attributed to her was that she had been aware at the time of having the affair that the Second Claimant was in a long-term relationship with Stephanie Ward living as a family with their daughter and that Stephanie Ward was pregnant with a second child by the Second Claimant.

The Second Claimant pleaded that the defamatory meaning attributed to him was that by having the affair with the First Claimant he had been unfaithful to his partner, Stephanie Ward, with whom he was living in a long-term family relationship with their daughter, with the full knowledge that Stephanie Ward was carrying their second child.

No defence had been served and instead an application was made by the Defendants for a determination that the words complained of were not capable of bearing the meanings attributed to them by the Claimants.

Following other recent cases the parties agreed that the hearing would proceed as a trial of a preliminary issue to determine the actual meaning of the words complained of. The Claimants waived their right to a trial by jury and also agreed that if the judge decided that the words complained of bear any meaning defamatory of the First Claimant, then he should also decide whether that meaning was a statement of fact or of opinion.

Mr Justice Tugendhat referred to Jeynes v News Magazihnes Limited [2008] EWCA Civ 130 as to the established principle of reasonableness as to determination of meaning and held the words complained of were defamatory of both Claimants.

“(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) …. (8) It follows that ‘it is not enough to say that by some person or another the words might be understood in a defamatory sense.'”

Although both were defamatory, with regard to the First Claimant, Mr Justice Tugendhat found there was one meaning. Nothing pointed to the First Claimant knowing Stephanie Ward was pregnant and whether or not she had split them up, this could only happen if that is what Stephanie Ward had decided to do.

Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that the meaning was a statement of fact, not opinion or comment

“The First Claimant entered into a romantic relationship with the Second Claimant knowing that he was in a stable, long term and committed relationship with Stephanie Ward, and knowing that he lived with Ms Ward and their young daughter as a family, and that in doing so she knowingly encouraged the Second Claimant’s betrayal of his family, and thereby engaged in conduct likely to cause the breakdown of the Second Claimant’s relationship with Ms Ward and their daughter”.

With regard to the Second Claimant, Mr Justice Tugendhat found that the meaning of the words he complained of were defamatory.

He adopted the meaning that the Claimant had pleaded in his particulars of claim.

“(c) By entering into a romantic relationship with the First Claimant, the Second Claimant was unfaithful to his partner Stephanie Ward, with whom he was in a stable, long-term and committed relationship, living together with her and their daughter as a family, and who, as he knew, was pregnant with their next child.”