Morgan v Odhams Press [1971] 1 WLR 1239

Libel and slander; newspaper; article capable of being understood as referring to claimant

(350 words)

Facts

The defendant was a journalist collecting material on a dog doping gang story, whereby he put a key witness (who agreed to talk to him) under his surveillance while investigations were ongoing. The witness left the defendant’s lodgings to spend a few days with the claimant with whom she was seen in public. The witness was later taken back to the defendant’s lodgings until after some of the gang members have been convicted. The defendant published his story, which included a photograph of the witness with her name also indicated. A later article suggested that the witness was kidnapped by members of the gang – the article did not mention the claimant by name or description.

Issue

The claimant brought an action for libel, arguing that by innuendo the article associated him with the dog doping gang and thus the kidnapping. At trial, the judge put the case before the jury as words of the article were capable of being understood as referring to the claimant. The jury found in favour of the claimant. The defendants appealed. The Court of Appeal allowed their appeal. It held that any reasonable man would have been prevented by the discrepancies in the story from thinking that the article referred to the claimant. It also held that in order to become defamatory, the article should have contained some clear indications that it referred to the claimant – which was not the case here. The claimant appealed to the House of Lords.

Held

The House of Lords held that one must first consider the nature of the article and the class of readers likely to read it. Then, one might go on to determine the impression the article would have had on the mind of the ordinary sensible reader, who read the article casually and not in expectation of precision. The Court held that the article would be defamatory if it contained defamatory imputations and pointed to the claimant as the person to be defamed. The Lords were of the view that in the present case the article complied with these requirements and was thus defamatory.