Hiranandani-Vandrevala v Times Newspapers Ltd [2016]

In Hiranandani-Vandrevala v Times Newspapers Ltd [2016] EWHC 250 (QB) (12 February 2016) the matter, before Mr Justice Nicol, concerned a claim for libel and malicious falsehood and breach of statutory duty in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. The Claimant brought the action in respect of articles published by the Defendant in the Sunday Times edition of the 23rd August 2015 and online on the same date with the headline ‘Hunt on for AIM firm’s missing £350m: alleged fraud by the former chief of Hirco has raised more concern about the junior stock market’. The claim also included an on-line article of the 25th August 2015 with the headline ‘AIM firm sued over £350m investment; alleged fraud by the former directors of Hirco has raised more concern about the junior stock market’.

Mr Justice Nicol, with reference to a consent order made by Master Eastman on the 2nd December 2015, heard the trial of a preliminary issue to decide the meaning of the articles in respect of the libel claims.

In his judgment Mr Justice Nicol listed the print and original on-line versions of the articles and noted that each article appeared with a photograph and description. Later in the article was another photograph of a man with the caption, ‘Suspect deals: Niranjan Hiranandani.’

The Claimant alleged that the meaning of the printed article and the earlier on-line article was:

‘£350 million is missing from Hirco’s accounts because it has been misappropriated and/or fraudulently obtained by the Claimant and other members of her family.’

She alleged the meaning of the later online article was:

‘the Claimant, together with other members of her family, has misappropriated and/or fraudulently obtained over £300 million from Hirco.’

Mr Justice Nicol observed that the consent order had extended the time period in which to serve a defence to allow the preliminary issue as to meaning to be decided. He noted that Defendant’s counsel in his skeleton argument had conceded they were defamatory as to the Claimant. He contended that the meaning of the print and both online articles was:

‘there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the Claimant and other members of her family had fraudulently obtained more than £300m by persuading Hirco to buy plots of land from them at values they knew to be grossly overstated’.

Mr Justice Nicol considered the big difference between the Claimant and Defendant was the meaning of the articles

“that the Claimant was guilty of fraudulent conduct or whether there were only reasonable grounds to suspect her of such fraudulent conduct, or, in the terminology frequently used in libel litigation, whether this was a ‘Chase level 1’ or ‘Chase level 2’meaning – see Chase v Newsgroup Newspapers Ltd. [2002].”

Mr Justice Nicol decided to examine the other differences between the parties later. In the meantime, he considered how the Court should approach the matter in determining a meaning. He examined the principles in Jeynes:

  • The governing principle is reasonableness.
  • The hypothetical reasonable reader is not naïve but he is not unduly suspicious.
  • Over-elaborate analysis is best avoided.
  • The intention of the publisher is irrelevant.
  • The article must be read as a whole, and any ‘bane and antidote’ taken together”.
  • The hypothetical reader is taken to be representative of those who would read the publication in question.
  • the court should rule out any meaning which, ‘can only emerge as the product of some strained, or forced, or utterly unreasonable interpretation
  • it is not enough to say that by some person or another the words might be understood in a defamatory sense.

Claimant’s counsel contended that “the plain ordinary meaning of the articles was that she was guilty of fraud”. Mr Justice Nicol noted that Claimant’s counsel submitted that if he had any doubt then he was obliged to apply the repetition rule. Mr Justice Nicol provided an example

“for instance, the publication of the libel, ‘X is alleged to be a fraudster’, will be treated as meaning that X is a fraudster. This, in turn, has two consequences. First, if the claim is successful, it will mean that damages are assessed on the basis that X has been wrongly accused of being guilty of fraud. Secondly, it will mean that the Defendant cannot prove justification (or, now, the statutory defence of truth) by showing that it was correct that someone had indeed alleged that X was a fraudster: the Defendant must instead prove that X was guilty of fraud”.

After considering the submissions of both counsel he observed that, in this case, the Defendant had accepted the articles were defamatory of the Claimant. The dispute between them was whether the defamatory meaning was of guilt or reasonable suspicion. He had to decide what the words meant and in doing so take into consideration the principle that the Court must judge the publication as a whole.

Claimant’s counsel had submitted that the repetition rule would have ensured that Mr Justice Nicol started from the position that the Hirco allegations in the articles should be treated as statements of the Sunday Times and with no other meaning than guilt of fraud which, should be set against the denials to determine whether the article as a whole, gave no more than a reasonable suspicion the Claimant had acted fraudulently. He continued that if Mr Justice Nicol took that approach it would be clear that the articles conveyed that meaning, the Claimant was guilty of that behaviour.

Mr Justice Nicol considered this to be an artificial approach. He observed that it was better to examine the meaning of the article as a whole.

He considered that in determining the meaning of the articles he did not have to keep within the meanings given by the Claimant and Defendant and, in this matter, each of the articles meant there was clear evidence to believe the Claimant of wrongdoing, therefore, Chase Level 2 meanings. He listed the reasons for his decision in his judgment, his first reason was that he had followed the principles in Jeynes.

He then dealt with the other issues as to the meanings of the articles. He concluded that

“Putting this together, in my judgment the print version, the original on-line version and the latter on-line version all meant that: There were cogent grounds to suspect that the Claimant (and her father) had fraudulently breached their duties as directors by persuading Hirco to buy plots of land from them at grossly over-stated values. This had caused a loss to Hirco of £350 million and had led to £300m going into an offshore trust owned by the Claimant, her husband and her brother, Darshan”.

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