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Depp II v News Group [2020] EWHC 2911 

You may recall Geoffrey Cox QC’s failed attempt at humour when, as Attorney General, he quipped from the dispatch box: “…when did you stop beating your wife?” This was intended as a reference to the art of cross-examination and the use of leading questions. It was, however, largely lost on his audience, attracting significant ridicule.

Background

In a slightly different context, an article was published on The Sun website on 27 April 2018 with the headline:

GONE POTTY How Can J K Rowling be “genuinely happy” casting wife-beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?

The next day, the headline was watered down with the substitution of “wife beater” with a reference to “assault claims”. This is a bit like saying something scurrilous and then appending the word ‘allegedly” to absolve oneself from blame. The article was also included in the print edition.  

Defamation: Libel v. Slander

These terms are not interchangeable. Libel relates to the printed word. Slander relates to the spoken word. Their effect and remedies are essentially the same. 

The defence of Truth

The Sun stood over 14 distinct allegations of domestic violence and asserted the statutory defence under the Defamation Act 2013 “…to show that the imputation conveyed by the statement complained of is substantially true”. This Act does not extend to Northern Ireland

Judgment

The judge, Mr Justice Nichol, noted that the burden of proof rested with the defendants. He was satisfied, on the balance of probabilities, that the ‘great majority of alleged assaults’ had occurred. Accordingly, the defendants had succeeded in showing that the meaning borne by the words in the disputed article was substantially true.

Although he has proved the necessary elements of his cause of action in libel, the Defendants have shown that what they published in the meaning which I have held the words to bear was substantially true. I have reached these conclusions having examined in detail the 14 incidents on which the Defendants rely as well as the overarching considerations which the Claimant submitted I should take into account. In those circumstances, Parliament has said that a defendant has a complete defence. It has not been necessary to consider the fairness of the article or the defendants’ ‘malice’ because those are immaterial to the statutory defence of truth.

Comment

On the evidence before the Court, the answer to the supercilious question posed by Geoffrey Cox QC would appear, in this case, to be “early 2013”.  

The defence of truth is nothing new. Nor, it seems, is the folly of resorting to litigation as a default:

  • Oscar Wilde’s criminal conviction was preceded by his ill-advised libel action against the Marquess of Queensberry. 
  • The conviction of former government minister Jonathan Aitken was preceded by his now-infamous “simple sword of truth” speech.  
  • The fall of Jeffrey Archer eventually followed a perjurious libel case.  

The list goes on… still.

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By Paul Sullivan FRSA

Creating unique, engaging content for your law firm clients