Newstead v London Express Newspapers [1940] 1 KB 377

Key Point

  • It is no defence for a publisher to state that the words published are true of someone else and not the plaintiff

Facts

  • The London Express Newspaper published an account of a Harold Newstead, a Camberwell barman, who had been convicted of bigamy
  • The plaintiff, Harold Newstead, a Camberwell hairdress, sued for libel, alleging that a number of people understood the words as referring to him
  • The defendant denied that the words referred to the plaintiff, but instead referred to another Harold Newstead, in which the story was true
  • The trial jury could not agree on whether a reasonable person would have understood the statement as referring to the plaintiff

Held (Court of Appeal)

  • Claim succeeds
  • A reasonable person would understand the statement as the plaintiff and that the defendants could not use the defence that the words complained of were true of another person

Sir Wilfred Greene MR

  • Regardless of whether the published statement is true of another person, a reasonable reader would understand it as referring to the plaintiff, and for that he asserts that a publisher cannot escape liability: p. 388

MacKinnon LJ

  • “If A publishes to another person, or persons, words which upon their reasonable meaning refer to B, if those words are defamatory as holding B up to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, and if the words so referring to B cannot be justified as true, A may be liable for damages to B”: p. 388
  • “Secondly, the reasonable meaning of the words, upon the question whether they refer to B must be tested objectively and not subjectively”: p.388
  • “Thirdly, A cannot plead as a defence that he was unaware of B’s existence”: p. 388
  • “Fourthly, A cannot plead as a defence that the words are, in their reasonable meaning, equally capable of referring to C, and that when referring to C they are true”: p. 388
  • “Fifthly, … it is immaterial whether A was either negligent or reckless or not ascertaining the existence of B, or guarding against the applicability to him of the words”: p. 388

Commentary

  • This case confirmed the general principle laid out in Hulton & Co. Ltd. v. Jones [1910] A. C. 20 and established that the test for libel is objective
  • Essentially, this case details how newspapers can face liability for libel if they fail to describe a person in greater detail