Reputation update: media harassment

Posted: May 18, 2020

In what is only the second harassment claim against the professional media to come to trial in England and Wales, the claimants, Mr and Mrs Sube, were unable to show that either News Group Newspapers Limited or Express Newspapers had engaged in a course of conduct against them that amounted to harassment.

Mr and Mrs Sube are a married couple who were in dispute with Luton Borough Council about the adequacy of the housing offered to their family, which at that time included 8 children. Not long after a local newspaper, the MK Citizen, was asked by Mr Sube to bring attention to the Subes’ situation, The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Star published 19 articles between them on the subject of the dispute, taking a critical view of the claimants for allegedly rejecting the Council’s housing offer. The online versions of the articles also attracted a number of reader comments that were adverse to the claimants and, in some instances, racist.

The claimants issued proceedings in relation to the articles and various of the reader comments under, inter alia, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

Giving judgment for the defendants (see Sube v News Group Newspapers Limited and Express Newspapers), the court noted that each of The Sun, Daily Express and Daily Star had to be considered separately. Various of the articles published in each publication amounted, when taken together, to a course of conduct, although the reader comments on the articles were not, on the facts, found to form part of the course of conduct. However, whilst the court accepted that the publication of the articles had no doubt contributed to the claimants’ distress and anxiety, it found that the content of the articles fell “well short of the standard required to establish the crime and tort of harassment”. Further, that the claimants had “failed to establish actual or imputed knowledge that the publication of the articles amounted to harassment”.

The bar to establishing a course of conduct amounting to harassment is high. In cases of alleged harassment by publication, the court must also ensure that it balances a claimant’s Article 8 rights to respect for private and family life and home with a publisher’s Article 10 rights to freedom of expression. In the court’s judgment, “nothing short of a conscious or negligent abuse of media freedom will justify a finding of harassment” and “it will be a rare or exceptional case in which these criteria are satisfied”.

The claimants in this case unfortunately rather undermined their chances of success by, as the court noted, “a lack of rigour and discipline in the analysis and presentation of [their] case”. The outcome of the case might also have been different if the origin of the content had not been Mr Sube’s own deliberate act in going to the MK Citizen to publicise the family’s complaints against Luton Borough Council.

Eleanor Steyn, Partner, Simkins LLP

Jacek Kruza, Trainee Solicitor, Simkins LLP