Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Mixed Outcome
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The High Court of Justice rejected a libel claim brought by two petitioners who alleged a press release by the Metropolitan Police department implied they had been convicted of murder. The impugned headline of the press release stated, “Three jailed for murder of Marvin Henry,” and although R. H. and A. A. had both been convicted of causing grievous bodily harm and false imprisonment in the lead up to the murder, they were not found guilty of the actual murder. Citing various standards from established case law, the Court assessed the wording of headline and press release based upon what the “hypothetical reasonable reader would understand” considering the context of the whole document. Since the primary audience for the press release was journalists, skilled professionals, and the document was only accessible to authorized users of the website, the Court rejected the interpretation of the press release put forth in the complaint. The Court found, despite the headline, that the words in the text of the press release had not intentionally asserted that either R.H. or A.A. had committed Henry’s murder and that the text had properly clarified that neither had been jailed for it.
*The names of the claimants have been removed from this analysis at the request of the First Claimant.
In December 2011, the Metropolitan Police released a statement to the press entitled, “Three jailed for murder of Marvin Henry.” The first sentence of this press release read: “Three final defendants have been jailed for their involvement in the lead up to the murder of teenager Marvin Henry.” The press release stated that R. H. and A. A. had both been convicted of causing grievous bodily harm and the false imprisonment of Henry and were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment on these charges, and that a third defendant, Rory Faley, had been convicted of and sentenced for grievous bodily harm and full imprisonment. The press release then went on to note that the men who murdered Henry had been convicted at a trial that had taken place earlier in the year. R.H. and A.A. brought this suit in libel, seeking damages from the Metropolitan Police on the ground that the meaning of the words in the press release incorrectly asserted that they had been involved in Henry’s murder. The impugned statement was part of a larger press release posted on a part of the Metropolitan Police website which is only accessible to authorized bodies.
In this decision, written by His Honour Judge Richard Parkes QC, the High Court of Justice considered the potential interpretations of the press release. R. H. and A.A. contended the meaning of the phrase “involved with four others in the murder of Marvin Henry and imprisoned for such,” but in their submission elected to focus on the headline. In his argument, the Commissioner of Police emphasized the importance of the context of the words. The Court also considered the criteria that should be used to determine meaning.
The Court looked to the standard set forth in Jeynes v. News Magazines Ltd. In Jeynes, the court instructed that judges should let reasonableness govern, avoid “over-elaborate analysis,” and disregard the publisher’s intent. Per Jeynes, courts should consider the hypothetical readers of the publication, and the article in question should be read as a whole. Additionally, “[i]n delimiting the range of permissible defamatory meanings, the court should rule out any meaning which ‘can only emerge as the produce of some strained, or forced, or utterly unreasonable interpretation.’” Finally, Jeynes found “[i]t follows that ‘it is not enough to say that by some person or another the words might be understood in a defamatory sense.’”
The Court also looked to standards and interpretations set forth in other cases, including the recommendation by the court in Johnson v. League Publication that a court not limit itself to the “meanings pleaded by the parties.” The courts in both John v. Guardian News & Media Ltd and Lord McApline v. Bercow employed the principle that courts can “take account of the nature of the hypothetical reasonable reader.” With these principles in mind, the Court considered the readership of this press release to be largely journalists, who are “educated people for whom the use and understanding of written English is a professional skill.” Reading the press release as an “ordinary reasonable journalist” would, the Court rejected the interpretation of the press release put forth in the complaint. The Court found, despite the headline, that the words in the text of the press release had not intentionally asserted that either R.H. or A.A. had committed Henry’s murder and that the text had properly clarified that neither had been jailed for it.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The High Court of Justice took a narrow approach in determining the potential interpretation of the meaning of the words in the press release by viewing their implication solely through the specific, interpretive lens of the “ordinary reasonable journalist.”
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Lower courts will be bound by this decision.
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