Ruling on meaning: Elton John v Times Newspapers Limited

In John v Times Newspapers Ltd [2012] EWHC 2751 (QB) Elton John lost his libel case against The Times when the papers application for a ruling on meaning was successful and the claim dismissed.

The paper had published two articles in June 2012 about tax avoidance. The article described a finance tax avoidance scheme and had referred in one of them as the accountant being Elton John’s former accountant which was untrue. A correction had been published the following day.

The newspaper sought a ruling on meaning pursuant to CPR PD53 Para 4.1(1) that the words complained of were not capable of bearing the meaning attributed to them by the Claimant in his Particulars of Claim, nor any other meaning defamatory of him. If the application was successful the Defendant would seek an order that the action be dismissed.

Mr John’s lawyers had argued that the imputation of the meaning was that he had been involved in immoral tax avoidance or was suspected of being engaged in it or there were grounds to investigate whether he was engaged in it.

The Times had argued that references to Mr John were fleeting.  In any event it was clear that reference to him was that he had a former business relationship with the accountant.  The Times argued it would be wholly unreasonable for a reader to draw such an inference that others were tainted unless the article expressly said so.

The Times application was granted.

The principles on such an application were summarised by Sir Anthony Clarke MR in  Jeynes v News Magazines Limited  [2008] EWCA Civ 130  at paragraph 14:

“(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 produce of some strained, or forced, or utterly unreasonable interpretation…” …. (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.”

The court found that there was no possibility of the first two meanings being established.

On the level 3 meaning, he found that “some readers might infer something to the discredit of the Claimant to be investigated“, but accepted the Defendant’s submission “that a hypothetical reader of The Times who inferred that would be outside any definition of the reasonable reader which a jury could apply without perversity“.

The Defendant’s application was therefore successful.

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