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Elton John's tax avoidance libel claim thrown out

Elton John's libel claim against the publisher of The Times has been dismissed after Mr Justice Tugendhat found that the words sued upon were not capable of carrying the defamatory meaning pleaded or any other defamatory meaning.

In John v Times Newspapers Ltd (Rev 1) [2012] EWHC 2751, Mr John sued over an article that appeared in The Times on 21 June 2012 concerning a scheme that allegedly allowed participants to take advantage of tax breaks for film investment in order to avoid tax.  Mr John was not accused of being involved in the scheme, but was mentioned as one of a number of celebrities said to have been been connected with an accountant behind the scheme.  The article said Mr John was a former client of the accountant in question.  In fact, this was a mistake.  Mr John had never been a client of the accountant.  The Times published a clarification and apology the following day, however that was not relevant to the application on meaning before the Court.

Mr John's lawyers argued that the imputation in the article was that Mr John was (1) engaged in or (2) was reasonably to be suspected of having been or being engaged in immoral tax avoidance or (3) there were grounds to investigate whether he had done or was doing so".

In deciding whether the words bore the defamatory meaning pleaded Tugendhat J referred to the test as summarised by sir Anthony Clarke MR in Jeynes v News Magazines Limited [2008] EWCA Civ 130:-

"The legal principles relevant to meaning ¦ may be summarised in this way: (1) The governing principle is reasonableness. (2) The hypothetical reasonable reader is not naïve but he is not unduly suspicious. He can read between the lines. He can read in an implication more readily than a lawyer and may indulge in a certain amount of loose thinking but he must be treated as being a man who is not avid for scandal and someone who does not, and should not, select one bad meaning where other non-defamatory meanings are available. (3) Over-elaborate analysis is best avoided. (4) The intention of the publisher is irrelevant. (5) The article must be read as a whole, and any "bane and antidote" taken together. (6) The hypothetical reader is taken to be representative of those who would read the publication in question. (7) In delimiting the range of permissible defamatory meanings, the court should rule out any meaning which, "can only emerge as the produce of some strained, or forced, or utterly unreasonable interpretation¦" ¦. (8) It follows that "it is not enough to say that by some person or another the words might be understood in a defamatory sense."

Tugendhat J noted that whilst it was possible that a small number of individuals might attribute the third pleaded meaning to the article (i.e. grounds for investigation), a hypothetical reader of The Times who inferred that would be outside any definition of the reasonable reader which a jury could apply without perversity.  Accordingly, he reached the conclusion that the words were not capable of being defamatory and dismissed the claim. 

A full copy of the judgment can be found here.


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