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Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone both in the libel courts

Posted on 23 July 2012 by Isabel Martorell


Since battling each other in the London Mayoral Elections in May, Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone have each found themselves faced with battles in the libel courts, the outcomes of which were reported last week.

Boris Johnson was the subject of a libel claim brought by Bob Crowe, the outspoken and often controversial leader of the RMT Union.  The complaint concerned  leaflets issued by Boris Johnson as part of his 2012 Mayoral campaign, which stated:

NOT KEN AGAIN
[KEN] WANTS TO COME BACK WITH HIS… COUNCIL TAX RISES, BROKEN PROMISES, CRONIES, HYPOCRISY, WASTE, BOB CROW

Mr Crow complained that the leaflet suggested to readers first that Crow’s association with Livingstone seriously damaged Livingstone’s election prospects and that it caused grave harm to the interests of Londoners; secondly, that it suggested Crowe was “part of and supported a culture of political immorality involving broken promises, cronyism, scandals and waste” and finally that he was “part of a corrupt, scandalous, unaccountable and wasteful group of cronies.

Boris Johnson applied to strike out Crow’s claim on the basis that the words complained of were not capable of bearing any meaning that was defamatory of Mr Crow.

In applying the now well-established tests for determining meaning – namely considering what the ‘ordinary reasonable reader’ would have understood the words to mean, and not what meaning the publisher intended them to convey – the Judge rejected Crow’s arguments that the leaflets were defamatory of him.  As to the first of the meanings complained of by Crow, the Judge, Tugendhat J, did not accept that the words bore a meaning which was capable of being defamatory of Crow, given that Londoners would inevitably be split as to whether the prospect of Mr Livingstone being elected as Mayor was a good thing or not.

Crow fared no better in relation to his complaints that the leaflet associated him with a culture of cronyism, scandals and waste.  Not suprisingly, the Judge held that readers would have understood these allegations to be levelled at Mr Livingstone, rather than at Bob Crow whose name was listed alongside these political ills.  Whether or not he feared the prospect of Mr Livingstone rushing off to issue a libel writ himself, Tugendhat J went further than this and found that in the context of a heated political campaign, the leaflet could not be held to be defamatory at all.  Having already indicated that a “particularly wide latitude for freedom of expression” must be allowed in the political and public sphere, Tugendhat went on to state:

In defamation, context is crucial.  In the context of an election, statements by one candidate about another candidate, or about a person associated with another candidate, are not capable of being understood as anything other than partisan.”

Crow’s case was struck out, although it’s fair to assume that this won’t be the last time that he and Boris Johnson find themselves locking horns.

On the other side of the political divide, it seems likely that Ken Livingstone has had enough of the libel courts to have any interest in bringing his own complaint about Johnson’s leaflets.  And – in an echo of the results in May’s elections – he did not fare so well as his Conservative counterpart in relation to the libel complaint which he (or in fact, the publishers of his biography) found himself having to defend.

Andrew Gilligan, former Evening Standard reporter and now the London editor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, had been accused by the former Mayor of London of making false statements in the Evening Standard about Livingstone’s time at City Hall.

Livingstone had claimed in his autobiography – entitled (rather ironically in retrospect) “You Can’t Say That” that Gilligan was “shown the door” by the Evening Standard, after publishing “lies” about the allocation of grants by Mr Livingstone’s former administration and his former race adviser Lee Jasper.  Livingstone also stated in his book that the Evening Standard itself had published editorials which repudiated Gilligan’s stories by confirming “there had been no corruption or cronyism at City Hall.

Livingstone’s publishers, Faber & Faber, formally apologised to Mr Gilligan in the High Court.  Tugendhat J was told that in fact, no such editorials had been published by the Evening Standard, while it was Gilligan who chose to leave the newspaper in order to take up a post with the Telegraph.  In addition to apologising, Faber & Faber agreed to pay an undisclosed amount of damages to Mr Gilligan, and to amend the paperback editions of Livingstone’s book.

As a final aside, at a time when the laws of libel are under almost constant attack from the media, it is interesting to note that here a prominent journalist apparently did not hesitate to pray in aid those very same laws to bring a complaint himself.   Gilligan recognised that a libel complaint provided a means to vindicate his reputation by ensuring that the true position was made clear, stating “I hope this makes it clear to Mr Livingstone and to anyone tempted to follow his example that I will always defend my journalism.”  The case is a timely reminder that our defamation laws provide an important check and balance on a powerful media and an important means of redress to individuals who have been traduced by it.

An abridged version of the above article was published on the Inforrm media blog: http://www.inforrm.com/.


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