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In this issue of zoom-in brief, The Sun fails to halt Johnny Depp’s libel action over ‘wife-beater’ article; Ofcom finds Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! not in breach over repeated programme; whilst leading philosophy Professor wins £20,000 libel damages against Twitter user over “under-age botty sex videos” claim.

Libel – Johnny Depp has fought off a High Court bid to temporarily halt his libel action against The Sun

Editorial credit: BAKOUNINE / Shutterstock.com
Editorial credit: BAKOUNINE / Shutterstock.com

Amber Heard and Johnny Depp

The Sun has failed to halt Johnny Depp’s libel action over allegations that he beat his former wife Amber Heard.

A judge sitting at the High Court has rejected the newspaper’s application that his claim should be “stayed unless and until” Depp confirmed in writing that he would not sue Heard if she participated in a forthcoming trial. But the judge ruled that such an order was not “necessary” at this stage of the case and contended that Heard was a “crucial” witness for Sun publisher News Group Newspapers and journalist Dan Wootton’s defence – which is that the allegations are true.

The libel claim arises out of publication of an article in the Sun last April (2018) under the headline “GONE POTTY How can JK Rowling be ‘genuinely happy’ casting wife-beater Johnny Depp in the new Fantastic Beasts film?”

The judge said the article “concerned alleged incidents of domestic violence by Mr Depp against Ms Heard during their marriage”.

Heard considered she was subject to “confidentiality restrictions” in an August 2016 divorce agreement “which prevent her from assisting the defendants with evidence to support their case”.

But, the judge announced: “I am not satisfied on the current evidence that Ms Heard’s concerns about the restrictions that the divorce agreement imposes on her are well-founded.”

He said that even if they were, “the matter is capable of resolution” and continued to say that Depp had stated clearly in his evidence to the court that he expects Heard “may well” give evidence in the proceedings, and “he will not attempt to prevent that”.

He added: “The fact that Ms Heard presently thinks that there is some impediment to her giving evidence for the defendants is nothing to do with Mr Depp”.

Depp, who denies beating Heard, would provide a “raft” of evidence from independent witnesses who “fundamentally contradict the evidence given by Ms Heard”, his barrister told the court.

He added that the actor “wants to stop false and defamatory publications”.

The judge said: “Whether the allegations of domestic violence are ultimately proved true is a matter for trial. At this stage, the court is not in a position to, and does not, make any findings at all.”

 

Regulation – Ofcom finds Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! not in breach over repeated programme

On 20 August 2017, Channel 5 broadcast an episode of Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away! featuring Ms Danin. The programme showed High Court Enforcement Agents (HCEAs) arriving at a health spa and walking towards the entrance of the building. The name “Shadi Danin Group” was briefly visible in large lettering over the doorway.

The HCEAs spoke to Ms Danin, the owner of the business, about her failure to repay money owed to another company following the loss of a court case which she had brought against it. The narrator stated: “After losing a court battle against three other companies, the spa owner now owes over £20,000 for legal costs. As she is taking further legal action, she thought that she didn’t have to pay this yet. The agents’ arrival is plainly a shock”.

Throughout the segment Ms Danin stated she didn’t know about the Writ and did not have the money to pay the legal costs. The HCEAs in the programme explained that she had had since February to pay the debt, reminding her she had been taken to court by three defendants on 6th February 2014.

Rather than removing her assets, one of the HCEAs suggested Ms Danin repay the debt in three instalments which she agreed to do,  paying the first one over the phone.

At the end of the programme, footage of Ms Danin was repeated along with the following captions: “Spa owner Ms Danin is up to date with her repayment plan.” and “She is taking further legal action to recoup her losses.”.

A complaint brought on behalf of Ms Danin said she was treated unjustly or unfairly in the programme because it implied  that she and her business were still in debt for £20,000. The complaint stressed that the fact the programme was repeated was detrimental to Ms Danin’s reputation and her business and the repetition of the programme had led to Ms Danin and her family becoming the subject of abuse.

In considering this complaint, Ofcom had particular regard to Practice 7.9 of the Code:

“Before broadcasting a factual programme, including programmes examining past events, broadcasters should take reasonable care to satisfy themselves that material facts have not been presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that is unfair to an individual or organisation…”.

Ofcom noted that the captions “Spa owner Ms Danin is up to date with her repayment plan”, and “She is taking further legal action to recoup her losses”, which appeared at the end of the programme, did not appear to have been updated since the programme was first broadcast in November 2014 as they did not explain that Ms Danin had since repaid the debt in full.

Ofcom considered however that the programme did not give the impression that Ms Danin and her business still owed £20,000 because the programme showed Ms Danin paying £6,741.83 on the day of the enforcement and agreeing to pay the remaining amount in two further monthly instalments and included reference to the debt being owed in August 2014.

Ofcom therefore considered that the broadcaster had taken reasonable care to satisfy itself material facts had not been presented, disregarded or omitted in a way that was unfair to Ms Danin, and that the repeat of the programme did not create unfairness to her.

This case acts as a reminder to all broadcasters that repeating programmes a long time after their original broadcast risks creating potential unfairness issues. Broadcasters should periodically review repeat broadcasts of programmes to ensure that any material change in factual circumstances does not cause unfairness to an individual and/or organisation. A consideration of the programme’s depiction of the events as a whole will be important (as in this case), but specific details such as those found in captions, may also require updating.

Libel - Professor wins £20,000 libel claim against Twitter user who suggested he was paedophile

Professor Grayling has won £20,000 libel damages against a Twitter user who accused him of being a paedophile in a case he said was partly driven by “a wish to put a marker down that social media should not be used in this incredibly irresponsible way”.

The Oxford University fellow and professor was “distressed and enraged” after Peter North suggested he possessed videos showing child abuse in a tweet posted online in May last year.

The defamatory tweet read: “I’d bet good money that AC Grayling has a hard drive full of under age botty sex videos.”

Professor Grayling was alerted to the post by other Twitter users and said he felt so insulted that he was unable to ignore it, the High Court heard.

North, who failed to file a defence, left the comment online for six days on his Twitter page, which had nearly 8,000 followers, and was warned over his remarks.

The baseless allegation was exacerbated by the fact that Professor Grayling regularly visits schools to talk to pupils about the study of humanities, the court heard.

His barrister told the court: “Allegations of paedophilia, including of possessing and storing child pornography, are undoubtedly some of the most serious allegations that can be levelled at anyone in the modern age.”

“The allegation is all the more damaging in respect of those who work with young people, and who regularly visit schools to talk to schoolchildren about their futures – as does Professor Grayling.”

North was described in court as a “prolific” pro-Brexit writer and founding member of The Leave Alliance. Professor Grayling is a well-known critic of Brexit.

 

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Abbas Media Law is a niche law firm, specialising in advice to independent production companies and broadcasters. We are true experts in our field: all lawyers and advisors have in the past worked either in-house for broadcasters and/or production companies. Accordingly, we fully understand production and the needs of our clients. We offer expert advice and representation on all programme content related matters (legal and regulatory), all aspects of business affairs, as well as complaints-handling and litigation. Visit www.abbasmedialaw.com or contact us directly at info@abbasmedialaw.com.

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