Publications must be taken as a whole when determining meaning, rules High Court

Out-Law News | 19 Feb 2016 | 9:42 am | 2 min. read

In order to determine the meaning of a publication in defamation, what matters is the publication taken as a whole, a High Court judge has said.

Mr Justice Nicol said it is wrong to approach the overall assessment of an article's meaning by first establishing what part of the article means and then seeing whether the remaining content alters that meaning.

The judge made the ruling after a pre-trial hearing in defamation proceedings brought against the Sunday Times newspaper by Indian businesswoman Priya Hiranandani-Vandrevala.

Hiranandani-Vandrevala has claimed that meaning of articles published in print and online versions by the Sunday Times "was that she was guilty of fraud", according to the High Court's judgment.

The Sunday Times accepted that the articles had a defamatory meaning. In defamation claims, the court has to determine whether the words in the publication complained of are defamatory. This requires the court to consider the meaning of the words in question.

Hiranandani-Vandrevala said that if the judge had any doubt as to what the defamatory meaning of the Sunday Times articles was then he was "obliged to apply the repetition rule". Mr Justice Nicol explained that the repetition rule "provides that a statement prefaced by words such as 'it is alleged that…' will be taken to mean the substance of what is alleged".

The Sunday Times articles contained allegations of fraud made by Hirco against Hiranandani-Vandrevala. Hirco is a business that Hiranandani-Vandrevala and her father used to serve as directors. Hiranandani-Vandrevala argued that, by interpreting the repetition rule, the fraud allegations attributed in the Sunday Times articles as coming from Hirco should in fact be considered as being made by the Sunday Times itself.

However, the Sunday Times pointed out that it had "set out the denials of wrongdoing by [Hiranandani-Vandrevala] and her family" in its articles. It "did not suggest that this completely removed all defamatory sting from the article", but that it required the judge to carry out "an assessment of its overall meaning", the ruling said.

The judge said it is "quite clear that … to make a decision as to the meaning of a publication, what matters is the publication taken as a whole". However, the Sunday Times and Hiranandani-Vandrevala had differing views on the approach Mr Justice Nicol should take to making an assessment of the overall meaning of the articles.

Hiranandani-Vandrevala argued that the repetition rule required Mr Justice Nicol to start his assessment of the Sunday Times article from the position that the Sunday Times was asserting fraud allegations against her and that the meaning to be derived from that was that she was guilty of fraud. She said that the judge should then consider the denials of her and her family contained in the Sunday Times report and then decide "whether the article as a whole conveyed no more than a reasonable suspicion that [Hiranandani-Vandrevala] had behaved fraudulently".

However, the Sunday Times said "it was relevant that the newspaper had not adopted the Hirco allegations as its own" and "had been careful to make clear that they were only allegations", according to the judgment. It said that "by including the denials of the Hiranandanis, [it] had conveyed to the reader that there was another side to this dispute". Because it had published both sides of the story the judge needed to carry out "an assessment of its overall meaning which was not dictated by the repetition rule", the Sunday Times said.

Mr Justice Nicol accepted the Sunday Times' arguments. He rejected Hiranandani-Vandrevala's suggested approach as being "artificial".

"Rather than take a part of the article, decide on its meaning and then look to see if that is altered by the remainder of the article, in my view it is preferable and in accordance with the [case law] I have cited, simply to consider the meaning of the article as a whole," Mr Justice Nicol said.