In this issue of zoom-in brief, Times article about Ben Stokes’ prosecutor found to be defamatory; Heather Mills settles phone hacking claim; and Michael Jackson fans sue singer’s accusers in France.
A court has found that a Times article: ‘Senior Prosecutor under fire after Stokes is cleared of affray’ was defamatory of prosecutor Alison Morgan QC. The article related to the prosecution, of England cricketer Ben Stokes for affray following an incident outside a Bristol nightclub in 2017. It alleged that Ms Morgan was responsible for the decision to charge Mr Stokes with affray rather than assault – which could have resulted in a much longer potential sentence – and not to charge another England cricketer, Alex Hayes, at all in relation to the incident.
The court found that the article was defamatory of Ms Morgan because it bore the meaning that she had been reasonably suspected of being professionally negligent when deciding who should be prosecuted and the preferred charges in the case. The Times had argued that the article was not defamatory as it only related to one particular incident and did not allege negligence or incompetence generally. The court rejected this argument, finding that an allegation that a professional is negligent in one instance can cause harm to a person’s reputation, and therefore be defamatory. The judge said: ‘I do not accept that the hypothetical reasonable reader would understand the article to have a more limited meaning, e.g. that the claimant may have made an excusable mistake or error of judgment’. The court further found that the article had a tendency to cause serious harm to Ms Morgan’s reputation.
In actual fact, the Crown Prosecution Service, not Ms Morgan, made the charging decisions in relation to Ben Stokes and Alex Hayes. While Ms Morgan had been involved in the case at an early stage, she was the first Junior Treasury Counsel at the relevant time. The Times had published a correction to this effect the day after the article was published. Ben Stokes was acquitted of affray in 2018 after the jury deliberated for two and a half hours. He was part of the England cricket squad that recently won the 2019 Cricket World Cup.
Heather Mills, campaigner and former wife of Sir Paul McCartney, has settled her phone hacking claim against News Group Newspapers, publishers of the Sun and the now-defunct News of the World. Ms Mills received a ‘substantial’ sum. The claim was settled on the basis that News Group made no admissions of liability about any phone hacking taking place at the Sun newspaper. The group admits that phone hacking took place at the paper’s former Sunday sister paper, the News of the World, which closed in 2011. News Group offered an apology to Ms Mills and her sister Fiona.
In a statement Ms Mills said she felt ‘joy and vindication’, that she and her sister had experienced ‘strange activity’ with their phones, journalists appearing unexpectedly and stories in newspapers without any identifiable source. She said the stories had caused suspicion that someone was selling stories to the media, had had a detrimental impact on her personal life and that her campaigning work had suffered. Ms Mills referred to having received the ‘highest media libel settlement in British legal history’, although in fact her claim was a privacy claim, rather than a libel claim, and the amount of the settlement has not been made public.
Ms Mills settlement is the latest in a long series of settlements by News Group, with celebrities including Sir Elton John, former Dr Who David Tennant, Liz Hurley, Hugh Grant and Charlotte Church.
Three French Michael Jackson fan clubs are suing the two men who accused Jackson of sexually abusing them in the documentary, Leaving Neverland. The fan clubs – The Michael Jackson Community, the MJ Street and On the Line – are suing James Safechuck and Wade Robson for defamation in Orleans, Northern France. This is possible because, unlike in the UK and the USA, the protection of defamation laws in France extends after a person’s death. The ‘King of Pop’ died in 2009, aged 50.
HBO’s Leaving Neverland was shown in France on the M6 channel. In the documentary Safechuck and Robson allege that Jackson abused them as boys in the 1990s. The fan clubs lawyer described the allegations as ‘a genuine lynching’. The fan clubs are seeking symbolic damages of €1 each. Judgment is expected in October. The proceedings have been welcomed by Jackson’s estate, who deny the allegations made in the documentary.
Whilst a lawsuit seeking to defend a dead person’s reputation would not be possible here, this case is note-worthy as it reminds producers to always obtain local legal advice in any country in which you propose to show a programme, as laws do differ.
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