Lewis v Daily Telegraph [1964] AC 234

Key point

  • To ascertain the meaning of the words in defamation, the court has to ask itself how a reasonable ordinary reader would understand these words
  • The ordinary meaning of words includes both the meaning of the words themselves (on face value) and what can be inferred
  • A statement on an inquiry into wrongdoing does not impute the meaning of guilt for the purposes of a defamation claim

Facts

  • Two national newspapers (the defendants) published articles headed respectively “Inquiry on Firm by City Police” and “Fraud Squad Probe Firm” which alleged a police inquiry into Lewis and the firm he was chairman of (the claimants).
  • The claimants sued for defamation, claiming that those articles were imputing guilt for fraud
  • The judge considered the articles to be capable of meaning that the claimants were guilty of fraud and directed the jury that it was open for them to find the words to carry such a meaning
  • The juries in both actions against each of the defendants held that the words were defamatory and granted large sums of damages, likely on the basis that the words imputed guilt for fraud
  • The defendants appealed on the basis that the judge should have directed the jury that the articles were not capable of conveying that the claimants were guilty of fraud
  • The Court of Appeal set aside the verdicts and ordered a new trial; the claimants appealed

Issue

  • Whether the articles are capable of meaning that the claimants were guilty of fraud

Held (House of Lords)

  • Appeal dismissed, a new trial of each action should be ordered
  • The judge should have directed to the jury that the articles were not capable of bearing the meaning that the claimants were guilty of fraud

Lord Reid

Meaning of words

  • ” There is no doubt that in actions for libel the question is what the words would convey to the ordinary man: it is not one of construction in the legal sense. The ordinary man does not live in an ivory tower and he is not inhibited by a knowledge of the rules of construction. So he can and does read between the lines in the light of his general knowledge and experience of worldly affairs.”: p. 258
  • The “ordinary meaning” of the words has two elements to it: 1. the words themselves and 2. what the ordinary man can infer from them: p. 258
  • “Ordinary men and women have different temperaments and outlooks. Some are unusually suspicious and some are unusually naive. One must try to envisage people between these two extremes and see what is the most damaging meaning they would put on the words in question.”: p. 259

Justification

  • “Then it is said that if that is so there can be no difference between an allegation of suspicious conduct and an allegation of guilt. To my mind, there is a great difference between saying that a man has behaved in a suspicious manner and saying that he is guilty of an offence, and I am not convinced that you can only justify the former statement by proving guilt.”: p. 260C

Current case / Statements of inquiry

  • “An ordinary man, not avid for scandal” would not “infer guilt of fraud merely because an inquiry in on foot.”: p. 260B
  • “it is the duty of the trial judge to direct the jury that it is for them to determine the meaning of the paragraph but that they must not hold it to impute guilt of fraud because as a matter of law the paragraph is not capable of having that meaning.“: p. 260B

Lord Devlin

Meaning of words

  • “The proposition that ordinary words are the same for the lawyer as for the layman is as a matter of pure construction undoubtedly true. But it is very difficult to draw the line between pure construction and implication, and the layman’s capacity for implication is much greater than the lawyer’s. The lawyer’s rule is that the implication must be necessary as well as reasonable. The layman reads in an implication much more freely; and unfortunately, as the law of defamation has to take into account, is especially prone to do so when it is derogatory.”: p. 277D

Statements of suspicion

  • “It is not, […], correct to say as a matter of law that a statement of suspicion imputes guilt. It can be said as a matter of practice that it very often does so, because although suspicion of guilt is something different from proof of guilt, it is the broad impression conveyed by the libel that has to be considered and not the meaning of each word under analysis”: p. 285

Current case / Statements of inquiry

  • “What is said is simply that the plaintiff’s affairs are being inquired into. That is defamatory, as is admitted, because a man’s reputation may in fact be injured by such a statement even though it is quite consistent with innocence.”: p. 285
  • “Just as a bare statement of suspicion may convey the impression that there are grounds for belief in guilt, so a bare statement of the fact of an inquiry may convey the impression that there are grounds for suspicion.”: p. 285
  • “Let it be supposed, first, that a statement that there is an inquiry conveys an impression of suspicion; and, secondly, that a statement of suspicion conveys an impression of guilt. It does not follow from these two suppositions that a statement that there is an inquiry conveys an impression of guilt. For that, two fences have to be taken instead of one.”: p. 286
  • “If the ordinary sensible man was capable of thinking that where ever there was a police inquiry there was guilt, it would be almost impossible to give accurate information about anything: but in my opinion he is not. I agree with the view of the Court of Appeal.”: p. 286

Commentary

  • Lord Reid suggested that unlike Lewis, the company has to prove a loss of income or goodwill to sue in defamation – it was later held in Jameel v Wall Street Journal Europe sprl [2007] 1 AC 359 that companies do not have to prove any financial loss to sue in defamation
  • Note that while Lord Devlin thought that the words used did not impute the meaning of guilty, they could be defamatory as they imputed the meaning that there are grounds for suspicion
  • The procedural point on appeal is now longer applicable: “Defamation Act 2013, s. 11 now prescribes that trial of defamation claims should ordinarily be without a jury, so the technicality should be reduced to some extent. It will no longer be necessary for the judge to rule, first, whether published material was capable of bearing the meaning contended for by the claimant, and then to ask the jury whether it in fact bore that meaning. The meaning of the published material will normally just be for the judge.” (Lunney, Nolan, and Oliphant, Tort Law: Text and Materials (6th edn), p. 736)