Mr Justice Nicklin’s recent judgment in the libel case of Anna Turley v Unite the Union and Stephen Walker provides important guidance on the ‘public interest’ defence under s4 of the Defamation Act 2013.
The Claimant, Anna Turley, was the MP for Redcar as part of the Labour and Co-operative Party. In April 2017, left-wing news blog The Skwawkbox published an article alleging that Ms Turley had made a false declaration that she was “unwaged” in order to join Unite Community, a section of Unite the Union reserved for the unemployed, to vote against the incumbent General Secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey.
Prior to publication, The Skwawkbox sought a ‘for publication’ statement from Unite, which was provided and included verbatim in the article. The statement said that “anyone joining [Unite] on a fraudulent basis will prompt an investigation. A complaint has been received and is being investigated.”
Ms Turley sued both Unite and Stephen Walker, editor of The Skwawkbox, for libel. Unite argued that it was not liable, as it was not the publisher of the Article, and both defendants sought to rely on the defences of truth and public interest under the Defamation Act.
Mr Justice Nicklin held that Unite was liable as a publisher because the statement it provided to The Skwawkbox held a seriously defamatory meaning in its own right, namely that they were investigating Ms Turley for “fraudulent” behaviour. Unite gave the statement knowing in broad terms what the article would contain, thereby (in the Judge’s words) “throwing a substantial quantity of fuel over a very small fire”.
Nicklin J rejected the Defendants’ argument that there was no serious harm caused to Ms Turley because a typical reader of The Skwawkbox would already be predisposed to view her negatively because she had campaigned against Jeremy Corbyn. In his view, the defamatory allegations would cause serious harm by reinforcing these negative views. In fact, one political opponent of Ms Turley’s circulated the damaging article.
The defence of truth failed, as the Defendants could not establish that Ms Turley’s application was made dishonestly. The online application form to join Unite Community did not make it clear that membership was restricted to the unemployed, and applicants were not required to make any declaration of unemployment.
With regard to public interest, although the statement passed the first limb of the test, in that it was on a matter of public interest, Unite were unable to establish that anyone involved held a belief that publication was in the public interest.
The court found that although Mr Walker did hold such a belief, it was not reasonable, as he had failed to take the necessary steps to investigate the validity of the statement or to obtain Ms Turley’s comments on the allegations. He had attempted to contact the Claimant on the day of publication, giving her a “self-imposed and unreasonable” deadline of three hours to respond. Further, in his emails he did not provide “full, fair and accurate information” about the allegations he intended to publish.
In the age of online journalism, whether on news sites, blogs or Twitter, journalists experience increasing pressure to report quickly and regularly, particularly when it comes to politics or other matters of public importance. However, Mr Justice Nicklin’s judgment provides a word of caution and a reminder that the principles of responsible journalism still apply, even when public interest is in play.
Although the Judge acknowledged that there may be cases where urgency dictates that a three-hour time frame will be reasonable, he suggested such cases would be rare. Where there is no particular urgency and the individual is given insufficient opportunity to respond, a publisher cannot simply rely on a belief that publication was on a matter of public interest in order to ensure that publication is legitimate. Not only must the publication be on a matter of public interest in objective terms, the journalist’s belief that publication is in the public interest must be reasonably held.