Lady Colin Campbell v MGN [2021] EWHC 601 (QB)

Lady Colin Campbell, who is a well-known writer and Royal commentator, brought an action in libel against MGN, the publisher of The Daily Mirror following the publication of an article titled

A glimpse into the sordid world of the entitled elite’.

The article referred to a number of well-known individuals, including a reference to Lady Colin Campbell’s appearance on TV in which she commented on the Jeffrey Epstein scandal. The words complained of were as follows:

“Then, remarkably, Lady Colin Campbell left us all open-mouthed on Monday when she appeared on Breakfast TV to defend Epstein’s right to rape children. ‘He was procuring 14-year-old prostitutes,’ she said. ‘They were not minors, they were prostitutes, there is a difference.’”

MGN filed a defence to the claim, arguing the article was “true in substance and in fact”.

The claim came before the court in March 2021 to determine the meaning of the article as a preliminary issue. In defamation actions, often a preliminary trial on the meaning of the publication is held early on in proceedings where the parties disagree on what the article actually means.

The Claimant, here Lady Colin Campbell, puts forward a meaning which they consider accurately reflects the harm caused by the statement to their reputation or how they have read the article and the Defendant, here MGN, will seek to reduce the meaning so that it is less damaging.

The court  will ‘determine the single natural and ordinary meaning of the words’ by considering ‘the meaning that the hypothetical reasonable reader would understand the words bear’.

Lady Campbell contended that the words were defamatory of her, both at common law and under s1 Defamation Act 2013. The Claimant sought a meaning which was “the Claimant had appeared on national television for the specific purpose of defending Jeffrey Epstein’s right to rape children and had done so”

The Defendant did not agree and sought a meaning “On Monday 18th November 2019 on Breakfast Television, the Claimant appeared to defend Jeffrey Epstein’s right to rape children when she drew a remarkable and untenable distinction between procuring 14 year old prostitutes and procuring minors for sexual intercourse.”

One of the defences available in libel actions is honest opinion. If the statement complained of is an opinion held by the writer, it does not have to be reasonable or fair. It is relevant in this claim as if the article was determined as opinion it would be covered by the defence and Lady Colin Campbell’s claim would fail. An opinion piece may still be defamatory but won’t be actionable.

To assess whether or not the statement complained of is fact or opinion, the court will consider whether ‘the hypothetical reasonable reader would understand the words complained of, read in context, as conveying fact or opinion’. The Court followed the guidelines set out by Nicklin J in  Koutsogiannis v The Random House Group Ltd [2019] EWHC 48 (QB)

“i) The statement must be recognisable as comment, as distinct from an imputation of fact.

ii) Opinion is something which is or can reasonably be inferred to be a deduction, inference, conclusion, criticism, remark, observation, etc.

iii) The ultimate question is how the word would strike the ordinary reasonable reader. The subject matter and context of the words may be an important indicator of whether they are fact or opinion.

iv) Some statements which are, by their nature and appearance opinion, are nevertheless treated as statements of fact where, for instance, the opinion implies that a claimant has done something but does not indicate what that something is, i.e. the statement is a bare comment.

v) Whether an allegation that someone has acted “dishonestly” or “criminally” is an allegation of fact or expression of opinion will very much depend upon context. There is no fixed rule that a statement that someone has been dishonest must be treated as an allegation of fact.”

Mr Justice Johnston determined the meaning of the article by first reading the article, making a note of his initial assessment, and thereafter he considered the representations made by the parties legal Counsel. Mr Justice Johnston’s initial assessment remained the meaning he determined in his final judgment.

The Judge found the article was a ‘hard hitting opinion piece’ but it was based on asserted facts, which the Claimant stated were defamatory and unjust. When determining the meaning the court will be careful not to overstate the seriousness of the publication as the hypothetical reasonable reader would not be ‘avid for scandal’.

In this piece, the Judge found that the reader was promised scandal by the journalist in the title to the article and for that reason the meaning could be determined by looking at what the reader expects to find out when reading the piece; therefore on this occasion, the Judge found that the ‘promise informs the meaning’.

The court held the meaning of the words complained of within the article as follows:-

  • (1)    assert as fact: “Lady Colin Campbell appeared on a breakfast television programme. She did so to defend the rape of children by Epstein. Her defence was that the children had been 14-year-old prostitutes rather than minors.
  • (2)    express the opinion: “This is a shocking thing to say. Her comments are an exemplar of the sordid world of the entitled elite.”

The claim continues.

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