The Times newspaper defamed a senior prosecutor over an article detailing her decision to charge cricketer Ben Stokes, the High Court has ruled.
In Morgan v Times Newspapers Ltd, Mr Justice Soole said the article from last August, headlined 'Senior prosecutor under fire after Stokes is cleared of affray’, imputed that barrister Alison Morgan had been professionally negligent, and thus had a tendency to cause serious harm to her reputation.
Morgan had brought legal action after the newspaper said she faced scrutiny over the decisions in the prosecution of Stokes, who had been cleared of affray following a much-publicised altercation outside a Bristol nightclub. In this trial of preliminary issues, it was stated that the initial decision on charges was taken by Morgan, but that a judge had indicated he would have allowed assault charges to be brought. The article was published in print and also online alongside CCTV footage showing the altercation.
Morgan’s pleaded meaning was the same for both versions of the article, namely that she would be reasonably suspected of having been professionally negligent in regard to her decisions about whom to charge and for what offences.
The court heard the ‘mischief’ of the article was not merely to point out that different counsel took a different view of the situation, but to ‘point the finger of blame’ at Morgan.
The Times argued that professionals who advise and act in this environment 'must expect to have their decisions questioned’, but questioning a decision did not necessarily mean that it was incompetent or professionally negligent. The reasonable reader, the newspaper said, would regard the decision on charges as a matter of judgement, on which different lawyers could reasonably have different views.
Soole J said he should put himself in the position of the hypothetical reasonable reader of The Times without any specialist legal knowledge.
In that regard, he said, the clear overall effect of the article was there was reaonable cause to suspect Morgan was professionally negligent. He did not accept the reader would understand the article to have a more limited meaning, namely that Morgan made an excusable mistake or error of judgement.
The judge rejected the defendant’s submission that defamation required an imputation of ‘habitual’ or ‘chronic’ incompetence, adding that a single allegation of incompetence may have just as adverse an effect on a professional's reputation.
The article in its true meaning 'had a tendency to cause serious harm to the professional reputation of the claimant', the judge concluded.