Defamatory words – Words capable of defamatory meaning

Cruddas v Calvert and others: Court of Appeal, Civil Division: 21 June 2013

The claimant was a treasurer to the Conservative Party. In March 2012, the first and second defendant journalists, working for the third defendant newspaper publisher, posed as representatives of Middle Eastern investors with money in a Liechtenstein fund and met with the claimant (the meeting). They secretly recorded the meeting and alleged that the claimant offered access to government ministers for cash and discussed ways around the requirement that contributors to party funds be resident in the UK.

Subsequently, the defendants published four articles and an editorial regarding the meeting. The claimant commenced proceedings against the defendants for libel and malicious falsehood. He contended that the ordinary meaning of three of the articles (the articles) was that he had acted corruptly and that he was guilty of a criminal offence. The parties agreed that the matter was suitable for trial by judge alone and requested the judge to make a preliminary ruling on the meaning of the articles for the purpose of both the libel and the malicious falsehood claims.

The claimant also applied to strike out the defendants' justification defence. The judge accepted the claimant's contended meanings were the relevant single meanings for the libel action and for the malicious falsehood claim that they were possible meanings. Consequently, he struck out the defendants' justification defence, entered judgment for the claimant for damages to be assessed and granted injunctions against re-publication of the articles. The defendants appealed. The defendants contended that the judge had erred in his findings. Consideration was given to the statements of principle contained in Skuse v Granada Television [1996] EMLR 279 (Skuse) (see [15] of the judgment).

The court ruled: (1) The imputations of criminal conduct were extremely serious and, if an appellate court thought that an article just did not bear that imputation, it should say so. It was an important aspect of the law of libel that it should be open to a defendant to justify a lesser defamatory meaning than that alleged by a claimant if that was the right meaning to be given to the article (see [19], [35], [36] of the judgment).

Applying established principles set out in Skuse, the defendants were not asserting that the claimant was criminally corrupt in offering access to a minister for cash. The defendants were asserting that the claimant's conduct was inappropriate, unacceptable and wrong. To some people that might indicate corruption, but it was not explicitly or implicitly an assertion of any criminal offence. It was overegging the pudding to say that the natural and ordinary meaning of the words used was that offering access to ministers for cash was to commit a criminal offence and the ordinary reader would not have so understood it, even if he thought that the conduct was morally unacceptable because it tended to impropriety (see [16], [35], [36] of the judgment).

For the purposes of the libel claims, the meaning of the articles did not include an allegation of corruption contrary to the criminal law (see [34]-[36] of the judgment). Skuse v Granada Television Ltd [1996] EMLR 278 applied; Slim v Daily Telegraph Ltd [1968] 1 All ER 497 considered; Berezovsky v Forbes Inc [2001] All ER (D) 452 (Jul) considered; Cammish v Hughes [2012] All ER (D) 105 (Dec) considered.

(2) As the defendants were not alleging criminality in the first of the meanings alleged by the claimant, the defence of justification should not have been struck out. The case should have gone to trial so that the defendants had the opportunity to justify the lesser meaning which they attributed to the articles (see [24], [25], [35], [36] of the judgment). The orders striking out the defence of justification, entering judgment for damages to be assessed and granting injunctions against re-publication would be set aside (see [34]-[36] of the judgment).

(3) Although the court was certain that the single meaning required by the law of libel did not carry the imputation of criminal corruption, it could not be certain that a number of reasonable people would not have understood the articles as making an imputation of criminal corruption. Accordingly, for the malicious falsehood claim, the imputation of criminal corruption was a meaning which was available (see [31], [35], [36] of the judgment). The appeal in respect of the possible meanings for the malicious falsehood claim would be dismissed (see [34]-[36] of the judgment). Decision of Tugendhat J [2013] All ER (D) 102 (Jun) reversed in part.

Desmond Browne QC and Matthew Nicklin QC (instructed by Slater & Gordon (UK) LLP) for the claimant; Richard Rampton QC, Heather Rogers QC and Aidan Eardley (instructed by Bates Wells and Braithwaite London LLP) for the defendants.