Jeremy Corbyn Loses Appeal in Libel Case
04 May 2021
The Court of Appeal in England and Wales has dismissed an appeal from former Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn MP, after being sued for defamation by a political blogger in July 2020. The Claimant, Richard Millett, is a political reporter, commentator and blogger.
On an episode of the Andrew Marr Show in September 2018, Andrew Marr asked Mr Corbyn, who was Leader of the Labour Party at that time, if he was an anti-Semite and showed a recording of a speech he made in 2013 that had attracted significant news coverage, in which he referred to “Zionists” who “don’t understand English irony”. Mr Marr suggested it was a “strange thing to say”. Mr Corbyn responded with the words that were then complained of, stating that the Claimant and another had been “incredibly disruptive” and “very, very abusive”. The Claimant sued on the basis that, although he was not named in Mr Corbyn’s statement, he was defamed because national media coverage before the broadcast of the Andrew Marr Show made him identifiable to viewers as one of those referred to by Mr Corbyn’s remarks about “Zionists”.
Mr Corbyn applied for an order for the trial of preliminary issues, namely:
- The natural and ordinary meaning of the statement complained of, including whether it refers to Mr Millett and any reference innuendo;
- Whether that meaning conveys a statement of fact or opinion, or else in part a statement of fact and in part of opinion; and
- Whether the meaning conveys a defamatory tendency at common law.
The trial judge held that the words complained of referred to Mr Millett and bore the ordinary meaning about him. Mr Corbyn appealed the judge’s further decisions that the meaning is a statement of fact, and that the meaning is defamatory of the claimant at common law.
The Legal Framework
The starting point in such a case is to identify the meaning the words would convey to the ordinary reasonably reader or viewer. At common law, a meaning is defamatory and therefore actionable if it satisfies two requirements:
- The Consensus Requirement – the meaning must be one that “tends to lower the claimant in the estimation of right-thinking people generally”. The Judge has to determine “whether the behaviour or views that the offending statement attributes to a claimant are contrary to common, shared values of our society” Monroe v Hopkins  EWHC 433,  1 WLR 1985.
- Threshold of Seriousness – to be defamatory, the imputation must be one that would tend to have a “substantially adverse effect” on the way that people would treat the claimant Thornton v Telegraph Media Group Ltd  EWHC 1414,  1 WLR 1985.
Unlike in Northern Ireland, in England and Wales, a third statutory requirement must be met under Section 1(1) of the Defamation Act 2013, which requires that the defamatory statement must cause “serious harm to the reputation of the claimant”. Mr Corbyn’s application for a trial of serious harm as a preliminary issue was refused.
Issues before the Judge
1. Fact or Opinion?
In England and Wales, one defence to a libel claim is the defence of honest opinion, provided for by Section 3 of the 2013 Act. The trial Judge had to decide whether the statement complained of was a statement of opinion. Relying on Koutsogiannis and Butt v Secretary of State for the Home Department  EWCA Civ 933,  EMLR 23, the trial Judge held that Mr Corbyn had made “factual allegations” as to Mr Millett’s behaviour on more than one occasion. Senior Counsel for Mr Corbyn argued that his statement was an exercise of the right to freedom of expression by a senior politician in the context of discussion about a highly charged and sensitive political issue, and that it was plainly one of opinion.
The Court of Appeal had to decide whether, in their context, the words “disruptive” and “abusive” were statements of opinion or statements of facts. It relied on the key principle of law, that the answer to that question must always be the one that would be given by the ordinary reasonable reader – or viewer – and that Mr Corbyn had been telling a story, in which he had provided factual background and context to present a factual narrative. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial Judge’s finding that they were indeed statements of fact.
2. Defamatory at Common Law?
The Court considered Mr Corbyn’s submissions that his words firstly did not lower Mr Millett in the estimation of right-thinking people and, secondly that it fell below the common law threshold of seriousness.
The trial Judge relied on Monroe v Hopkins to consider whether the type of conduct attributed by Mr Corbyn to Mr Millett would “be contrary to the common or shared values of our society and modern community”, and decided that the test was clearly met.
In relation to the threshold of seriousness, the trial Judge referred to Gatley on Libel and Slander 12th edition, para 34.17 to conclude:
“Mr. Corbyn, one of the most prominent politicians at the time, accused Mr. Millett of seriously abusive behaviour towards a speaker, in the terms I have found above. Mr. Corbyn did this in careful language in an interview with a political journalist on what is arguably the major weekly national political programme, and which is free to air on the BBC, recorded live and aired during a prime time viewing period. The Statement was not a trivial matter and readily meets the Thornton standard at common law."
The Court of Appeal agreed with Mr Corbyn’s point in criticising the trial Judge for his adoption of a “multi-factorial” approach to the common law threshold of seriousness, and stated that the Judge may have been misled by the passage in Gatley, which is not firmly grounded in authority.
However, the Court of Appeal ultimately upheld the trial Judge’s decision and dismissed the Appeal, stating:
“Alleging disruptive behaviour that leads the police to want to remove a person from a public meeting, and alleging such verbal abuse of a public speaker that the Leader of the Opposition was forced to speak up in controversial terms to defend him, crosses the common law threshold of seriousness. The Judge was right to hold that such allegations would tend to have a substantial adverse effect on the attitude that people would take to Mr Millett.”
Unless a settlement is reached between the two parties, the matter will now proceed to trial.
*This information is for guidance purposes only and does not constitute, nor should be regarded, as a substitute for taking legal advice that is tailored to your circumstances.