A retired solicitor’s ‘abrasive’ and ‘frequently puerile’ blog posts are entitled to the same level of protection as mainstream journalism, a High Court judge has ruled, striking out a harassment claim brought by a local government officer.
In McNally v Saunders, Mr Justice Chamberlain said the case, over posts on the ’Sandwell Skidder’, a blog set up by local resident Julian Saunders devoted to alleged malpractices at Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, had no reasonable prospect of success.
The case was brought under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 by Dr Lisa McNally, Sandwell’s director of public health and a mental health campaigner. McNally was the subject of five blog posts, criticising her decision to post a two-minute video about her own struggle with mental health and questioning her qualifications. She said the posts had caused her ‘crippling’ anxiety about attending meetings and made her worry about her ability to do her job.
For McNally, Aileen McColgan QC said that, as an ‘unregulated lone blogger’, Saunders is not entitled to be treated as a journalist. Saunders ‘ought to have known’ that his actions amounted to harassment.
The judge ruled that the claim would hinge on the content of Saunders’ blogs rather than any oral evidence that might emerge at a full trial. Saunders, he said, aims to emulate the style of Private Eye: ‘Whether he succeeds in that aim is another matter.’ Given his posts’ ’frequently puerile tone and style, a casual reader… might be surprised to discover that they are the work of a semi-retired former solicitor,’ he said. However ’none of these features disentitles them to the protections afforded by the law to journalistic expression.’
While Saunders’ repeated references to McNally’s history of mental ill-health might have tipped the balance towards ‘oppression, persistence and unpleasantness’, he noted that McNally herself had chosen to place the information in the public domain. Commending McNally’s work, he said that ’someone who decides to make a public disclosure of this kind must expect that, while many people are likely to comment favourably, some may choose to make comments that are adverse.’
Meanwhile, there was a public interest in the performance of a senior officer being subject to scrutiny and criticism. The public interest in her being able to continue in her role was outweighed by Saunders’ Article 10 right to free expression, he said. ‘Their puerile and abrasive tone and style did not disentitle them to that protection.’
He granted summary judgment for Saunders under CPR rule 24.2.
Aileen McColgan QC, instructed by Sandwell MBC, appeared for McNally; Richard Munden, instructed by Patron Law, for Saunders.
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