Bookbinder v Tebbit [1989] 1 All ER 1169

Key Points

  • In defamation, allegation of specific wrongdoing of the claimant does not necessarily carry a wider defamatory meaning
  • Where a defamatory statement relates only to a specific wrongdoing, evidence of other occasions of wrongdoing of a related nature cannot be used as justifications by the defendant

Facts

  • A county council decided to overprint “Support Nuclear Free Zones” on all school stationery. During a by-election meeting, the defendant Tebbit (D) stated that the overprinting had cost £50,000 and was a “damn fool idea”
  • The plaintiff Bookbinder (P) issued a claim for damages for defamation, alleging that the words in their natural and ordinary meaning meant that P, as leader of the council, had acted irresponsibly in causing large-scale squandering of public funds
  • D raised as justification other occasions where P had been irresponsible with money of the council
  • In response, P amended his statement of claim so as limit it claiming damages for the specific allegation of misspending of £50,000 and not for a general allegation irresponsible spending
  • P also sought to have D’s justification based on evidence of irresponsible spending of money of the council on other occasions struck out
  • The judge refused P’s application to amend his claim and to have D’s justification based on other occasions struck out
  • P appealed

Issue

  • Whether words spoken were capable of wider meaning
  • Whether D’s justification of the specific allegation of overspending of £50,000 based on other occasions of overspending should be struck out

Held (Court of Appeal, Civil Division)

  • Allowing the appeal; the words of D related solely to the overprinting incident and could not mean that P was irresponsible in spending on other occasions

Ralph Gibson LJ

  • “It has not been, and could not be, suggested that a particular charge of wrongdoing necessarily may be regarded by the jury in all cases as including a general charge of that sort of wrongdoing.”: p. 646
  • “The clear impression which I have formed of these words, in their context as now before us, is that the ordinary man envisaged by Lord Reid would regard the defamatory charge in the words used, if there was any, as limited to the spending of stated sums on the stated project”: p. 651
  • ‘The fact that the defendant now asserts the wider meaning, in order to be allowed the opportunity to try to prove other distinct items of public expenditure which he wishes to try to prove to have amounted to squandering of public money, does not, in my judgment, alter the case or widen the possible meaning of the words used.’: p. 651

Commentary

  • Bookbinder v Tebbit suggested that “a defamatory statement alleging that the claimant did a specific thing cannot be justified by evidence of other misconduct on his part”, “[b]ut in Williams v Reason [1988] 1 WLR 96 a newspaper article containing an allegation that the plaintiff had, in breach of the code of conduct governing amateur rugby players, written a book for financial gain was held capable of bearing the wider meaning of a charge of ‘shamateurism’, and evidence that he had accepted ‘boot money’ was admissible by way of justification (i.e. truth). In such matters, it is not possible to give any guidance more specific than that the meaning of the words complained of must always be assessed in the light of the publication as a whole, and the precise context and circumstances of its communication”: Mark Lunney, Donal Nolan, and Ken Oliphant, Tort Law, Text and Materials (6th edn), p. 754