Charleston v News Group Newspapers Ltd [1995] 2 AC 65

Key point

  • The text of the article may be sufficient to neutralise the libellous implication of a headline or photographic publication, even though many readers might take note only of the latter

Facts

  • A newspaper had published digitally altered images of two australian actors, whose faces were superimposed on pornography.
  • The text accompanying the images made clear that they were not real and had been created without the actors consent.
  • The court of appeal dismissed the actors’ initial defamation action

Held (House of Lords)

  • Appeal dismissed; a defamation claim could not be based on the effect a publication may have on a subgroup, that did not read the clarifying text accompanying the degrading publication

Bridge LJ and Nicholls LJ

  • The Plaintiff’s claim was mainly based on the assumption that a (large) group of ‘limited readers’ would not read beyond the tabloid’s headline/ picture, thus negating the articles potentially neutralising effect: [71]
  • Yet, ‘The question, defamatory or no, must always be answered by reference to the response of the ordinary reader to the publication’: [74]
  • The described group of ‘limited readers’ could not be said to be the ordinary, reasonable reader: [73]
  • Thus, a prominent headline could not found a defamation claim isolated from it’s text, as the ordinary reader could be presumed to read both: [72]
  • On the upside, a Jury may at a later point decide, that said text would not be sufficient to neutralise the libel: [74]

Commentary

  • While legally sound, it may be said that the decision is unsatisfactory, considering the actual circumstances surrounding the judgement – the ‘crude yardstick’ of assuming (for legal purposes) that potentially millions of readers will all interpret a publications meaning the same way, or even read it fully, is arguably outdated’: (Libel and Pornography, Peter Prescott, The Modern Law Review, Vol. 58, No. 5 (Sep., 1995), pp. 752-755)