30th Oct 2012
In joined cases arising out of libel proceedings, the appellants (M and MGN) appealed against awards of compensation made in favour of the respondents (C and K).
C was a well-known international cricketer; M was the ex-chairman of the Indian Premier League. M published a message on Twitter which referred to C being involved in match-fixing. An article repeating the allegation was subsequently published on a cricketing website, whereupon C sued for libel. C reached settlement with the cricketing website but M took the case to trial on a plea of justification. The judge awarded C £15,000 to reflect one aspect of aggravation, namely the conduct of M's former counsel during the trial. The total sum awarded was £90,000. In the other case, MGN was sued for libel by K, who was the father of the child known in the media as "Baby P". MGN published a newspaper article about Baby P's mother, which stated that K was a sex offender who had been convicted of raping a 14-year-old girl. The statements were completely untrue. MGN apologised promptly and made an unqualified offer of amends. The judge assessed compensation after the parties failed to agree on an appropriate figure. He identified a starting point of £150,000 and reduced it by 50 per cent to take account of all the mitigating factors.
M argued that the sum awarded to C was disproportionate and excessive in the light of the relatively narrow scope of the original publication. He further submitted that there was a reduced need for an element of vindication in an award once a reasoned judgment vindicating the claimant had been promulgated at the conclusion of a trial. He also argued that the judge should have adopted a more analytical reasoning process, similar to that in Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  EWCA Civ 1871,  I.C.R. 318, and should have given a more detailed breakdown of the award. MGN argued that the judge had not given sufficient consideration to the fact that K was anonymous throughout the currency of the libel.
(1) Although only a small number of people would have read M's original message on Twitter, as a consequence of modern technology and communication systems, allegations such as the ones concerning C had the capacity to "percolate" more widely and more quickly than ever before. The "percolation" phenomenon was a legitimate factor to be taken into account in the assessment of damages, Slipper v BBC  1 Q.B. 283 and Ley v Hamilton (1935) 153 L.T. 384 considered (see paras 26-27 of judgment). (2) The principle which M sought to argue for, namely that damages should always be less following a trial by a judge alone than after the verdict of a jury, on the basis that the judge would provide a reasoned judgment which, if favourable to the claimant, would vindicate him, could not be accepted, Associated Newspapers Ltd v Dingle  A.C. 371 and Purnell v BusinessF1 Magazine Ltd  EWCA Civ 744,  1 W.L.R. 1 considered. Most lay observers would be unlikely to read a detailed judgment and would be more interested to find out what sum the court, whether judge or jury, had awarded the claimant. Given the wholesale attack on C's reputation in the course of the trial, it was safe to assume that such a person would only be convinced by an award of some magnitude (paras 30-31). (3) In Vento the court identified three broad bands of compensation for injury to feelings in the context of sex and race discrimination in the employment field. The process of determining compensation in defamation cases was well established, and was multi-layered, in the vast majority of cases going well beyond the assessment of compensation for injury to feelings arising in discrimination cases. Adopting a comparatively analytical approach in libel cases would give rise to practical difficulties. The combination of circumstances and the different features which fell for consideration in libel claims varied enormously, and did not lend themselves to straightforward categorisation, Vento considered (paras 35-38). (4) The sum awarded to C was proportionate to the seriousness of the allegation and its direct impact on C, and would serve to vindicate his reputation (para.41). (5) The judge, in assessing K's compensation, had attached too much importance to the large circulation and readership figures for MGN's newspaper. The very limited nature and extent of publication as it might have impacted on K's reputation, given that he was and remained anonymous, was not given sufficient focus. The appropriate starting point was £100,000, which would be reduced by 50 per cent to allow for the offer of amends procedure adopted by MGN, resulting in an award of £50,000 (paras 47-50).
Appeals allowed in part.
It would not usually be possible for a judge assessing compensation in libel cases to adopt the sort of analytical approach that was adopted in Vento v Chief Constable of West Yorkshire  EWCA Civ 1871,  I.C.R. 318. The combination of circumstances and the different features which fell for consideration in libel claims varied enormously, and did not lend themselves to straightforward categorisation.