An article with a few untrue facts may not necessarily be defamatory, says Claire Gill

Popstar Niall Horan of One Direction fame has won the right to pursue a libel case against a tabloid paper for the insinuation he had used hard drugs. The case raises interesting questions for all individuals in the public eye as to how papers report on ‘celeb’ or people news and the troublesome issue of meaning.

All defamation claims start with an analysis of the words complained of and the question ‘what does the article mean?’ The second question is whether the words are defamatory; ie do they tend to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking members of society and (following a new defamation law) have they caused or are likely to cause serious harm to the individual’s reputation?

Simple enough questions you would think, but as Horan recently discovered in his claim against Express Newspapers, it can quickly become a complex legal issue. He has sued for libel over an article published in The Daily Star in which it was reported that he was pictured with Justin Bieber ‘alongside a Breaking-Bad style drugs pipe’.

The newspaper disputed the meaning put on the words and argued that in fact it was not defamatory of him at all. The Judge found the words were capable of bearing the defamatory meaning alleged, and he found no difficulty in accepting Horan’s arguments, given the extensive drug references in the text.

Other cases are much more complex, as separating fact from comment can be difficult, and there are various degrees of seriousness of guilt, suspicion and grounds to investigate.

In the real world different people interpret what they read in different ways, but the law (for the sake of supposed clarity) has developed what it calls a ‘single meaning rule’; that is to say that the court (no longer a jury) will have to decide one meaning that the article was understood to bear to the reasonable reader. The so-called ‘natural and ordinary meaning’ embraces inferences which can be drawn by a reasonable reader of the whole text.

And who is this reasonable reader? According to well-established legal principles, they are someone not ‘unduly suspicious’, who can ‘read between the lines’ and is not ‘avid for scandal’. One may wonder whether such a person really exists. ‘Over-elaborate analysis’ is best avoided, which is fine in theory but in practice a detailed analysis takes place before a court arrives at a meaning.

A claimant cannot pick and choose the worst bits to sue over; the whole text in its context is taken into account, and sometimes text putting across the other side of the story will act as a complete antidote to the ‘bane’ of the libel. Whether that works will depend on the prominence and context; sometimes a published denial just looks like a lie.

Many readers skim the text and just read headlines. However, you cannot bring a claim for libel in relation to a headline or photos in isolation from the related text. It is up to the court to decide whether the text effectively neutralises a defamatory or sensationalist headline.

Two stars of the Australian soap Neighbours sued over naked pictures of bodies on which their faces had been superimposed, but the House of Lords found that no reader on reading the whole text could possibly have drawn the inference that they had been willing participants in the photos. So it all depends on context.

In the online sphere, depending on the facts it may be possible to complain only of a so-called ‘clickbait’ headline, which is typically sensationalist, and most people who see the headline do not actually click through to the site.

For anyone considering legal action over a defamatory article, try standing back from it and view it objectively. An article that includes a few untrue facts will not necessarily be defamatory. A gut feeling is probably as good a test as any.

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