Price v MGN Ltd, Court of Appeal - Queen's Bench Division, November 08, 2018, [2018] EWHC 3014 (QB),[2018] WLR(D) 690

Resolution Date:November 08, 2018
Issuing Organization:Queen's Bench Division
Actores:Price v MGN Ltd
 
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Case No: HQ17M04572

Neutral Citation Number: [2018] EWHC 3014 (QB)

IN THE HIGH COURT OF JUSTICE

QUEEN'S BENCH DIVISION

MEDIA AND COMMUNICATIONS LIST

Royal Courts of Justice

Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

Date: 08/11/2018

Before :

THE HONOURABLE MR JUSTICE WARBY

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Between :

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Hugh Tomlinson QC and Robert Sterling (instructed by Carruthers Law) for the Claimant

Adam Wolanski (instructed by Simons Muirhead & Burton LLP) for the Defendant

Hearing date: 30 October 2018

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JudgmentMR JUSTICE WARBY :

Summary

  1. The claimant was the Chief Constable of Cleveland Police. In and after 2011, he was the subject of disciplinary investigations and proceedings. As a result, he was dismissed. That was in October 2012. In December 2016, the defendant, the publisher of the Mirror newspaper, published three articles which have led to this libel action. The claimant complains that those articles meant that, when he was Chief Constable, he was party to the illegal interception of the mobile phone records of a Mirror journalist. The defendant denies that any of the articles bore any such meaning, or any lesser meaning of the same kind (an ``Interception Meaning''). If that was right, it would be the end of the case, because the only meanings complained of are Interception Meanings. On the defendant's application, I have tried the issue of what the words complained of mean as a preliminary issue in the action.

  2. For the reasons that follow, I have concluded that the claimant is right about the meanings of the words complained of.

  3. The defendant has an alternative application, by which it seeks to bring an early end to the claim on other grounds. It seeks summary judgement, or alternatively the striking out of the claim as an abuse of process. The basis for these applications is not that there was any truth in the Interception Meanings, or that the defendant has any other substantive defence to the claim in respect of those meanings. Rather, it is said that the articles complained of contained other, separate and distinct, defamatory imputations about the claimant, arising from or connected with his dismissal. Mr Wolanski has dubbed these the Dismissal Allegations. It is said that the publication of those allegations - of which the claimant has not complained - was so destructive of the claimant's reputation that the publication of the Interception Meanings cannot have caused any serious reputational harm. Accordingly, the claim must fail. Alternatively, the claim is said to be an abuse of the Court's process, on two bases. First, it is said that the time and expense which the claim would absorb are wholly disproportionate to the minimal damages that might, at best, be recovered; so, it would be wrong to allow the claim to proceed. Reliance is placed on the abuse of process principle identified in Jameel v Dow Jones & Co Inc [2005] EWCA Civ 75 [2005] QB 946. Alternatively, the claimant's decision not to complain of the Dismissal Allegations is said to be a tactical abuse of the law or the Court's procedures.

  4. My conclusion, for the reasons given below, is that it cannot be said that the claim is bound to fail, or that it is an abuse of the Court's process. The summary judgment and strike-out applications should both be refused. The claim must proceed towards trial.

    The claim

  5. The first article complained of (``the First Article'') was published from about 22.36 on 18 December 2016 in Mirror Online. A slightly modified version was published about half an hour later, but the changes are immaterial. The article was headed ``Police unlawfully intercepted Mirror reporter's phone records after disgraced Chief's lies were exposed''. There was a sub-headline, in bold: ``Force unlawfully snooped on us and others after its £191,000-a-year Chief Constable, later sacked in disgrace, had an affair with a colleague, lied about it, and spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on jollies with her.'' The claimant complains of all these words.

  6. This was quite a long article, running to 37 paragraphs in all. The full text is set out in Appendix A to this judgment, with paragraph numbering added for ease of reference. The article was illustrated by three photographs of the claimant, two in uniform and one in civilian clothes with the caption, ``Price leaves his home yesterday''. The claimant has selected some of the article for complaint, relying on the following words (again, the numbering has been added):

    ``[1] A police force last night faced stinging criticism for unlawfully snooping on the Daily Mirror after we revealed its Chief Constable blew taxpayers' cash to conduct an affair with a colleague.

    [2] Bosses used powers designed to track terrorists and dangerous criminals to access my phone records as well as those of other journalists, officers and a solicitor in a bid to find who was leaking -information about alleged racism within its ranks.

    ...

    [6] Cleveland Police admitted it accessed my mobile records under the Regulatory -Investigatory Powers Act of 2000.

    ...

    [22] In 2010, the Mirror told how Price had started a fling with Eastwood, now his wife. An internal report by Cleveland Police told how he tried to cover up his affair when we first broke the story.

    ...

    [34] Five months after our phone records were accessed, Price became the first chief constable to be sacked in 35 years. ...''

  7. The natural and ordinary meaning attributed to these words by the claimant is that ``whilst holding office as Chief Constable, [he] was party to the illegal accessing of the mobile telephone records of a Daily Mirror journalist.''

  8. A similar article (``the Second Article'') was published in the hard copy Mirror newspaper the following day, 19 December 2016. It was a ``splash and spread'', in two main parts. There was a prominent front page lead story which referred the reader to pages 4 and 5 for the ``FULL STORY''. These two elements have, quite rightly, been treated as a single publication for present purposes.

  9. The front page lead took up over half the front page. It was headed ``CHEATING TOP COP & THE SPY SCANDAL'' and sub-headlined ``Police unlawfully intercepted Mirror reporter's phone records after chief's lies exposed''. The claimant complains of all these words. The article was illustrated by a photograph of the claimant in police uniform. The claimant complains of the body of the front page splash, which read as follows:

    ``POLICE used terror laws to snoop on Mirror phone records after it was revealed a Chief Constable lied about his fling with a colleague.

    Cleveland bosses accessed data after reports that Sean Price blew public cash on the relationship and other allegations of racism within the force. One MP said: ``This is shocking. We do not live in a police state.''

  10. The spread on the inside pages had two headlines: ``Shameful abuse of power by Police'' and ``THE SPY COPS''. Beneath those words were a photograph of the claimant (``top cop'') shown as he ``leaves his home yesterday'', and a picture of his ``cop lover''. Prominently in the middle of the page were these words: ``Force unlawfully snooped on us & others after its £191,000-a-year Chief Constable, later sacked in disgrace, had an affair with a colleague, lied about it, and spent thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money on jollies with her.'' The claimant complains of all these words. The spread comprised a main article, some boxes of text, and a comment piece.

  11. The main article was again quite long, this time running to 28 paragraphs in total. The full text is at Annex B to this judgment. The claimant has selected the first seven paragraphs for complaint. They read as follows:

    ``[1] A POLICE force last night faced stinging criticism for unlawfully snooping on the Daily Mirror after it was revealed its Chief Constable blew taxpayers' cash to conduct an affair with a colleague.

    [2] Bosses used powers designed to track terrorists and dangerous criminals to access my phone records as well as those of other journalists, officers and a solicitor in a bid to find who was leaking information about alleged racism within its ranks.

    [3] We had told how £191,000-a-year Cleveland Chief Constable Sean Price was having a fling with his chief staff officer Heather Eastwood. He claims the romance started after he had left his wife Jackie, but that turned out to be a lie.

    [4] Later sacked for gross misconduct and branded a liar and a bully, he also spent £57,800 on a force credit card, which included bills for hotels and flowers.

    [5] Cleveland Police admitted it accessed my mobile records under the Regulatory Investigatory Powers Act of 2000. And a tribunal in London heard it breached communication data powers to get hold of the information.

    [6] It claimed the move was done by mistake. But former Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper branded the breach "very serious".

    [7] The Commons Home Affairs Select Committee chairwoman said: "Communications data powers exist so the police can investigate serious crimes, not so they can prevent journalists holding them to account. In a democracy the freedom of the Press is incredibly important and needs to be protected not undermined. ..."''

  12. The comment piece, by Kevin Maguire, ran to seven paragraphs. The claimant complains of it all:

    ``[1] WELCOME to Stasi Britain, where cops spy on journalists investigating credible allegations of police corruption.

    [2] If this had been in Putin's Russia, our PM and Foreign Secretary would rightly denounce state intimidation and an unwarranted assault on press freedom.

    [3] So we must now hold to account the high-ranking uniforms who abused positions of trust to cover up bad behaviour by public servants. Covertly monitoring calls by my respected colleague Jeremy Armstrong rode roughshod over his right to privacy and civil liberties. The police...

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