Defamation Case: BBC defeats defamation claim brought by iman accused of espousing extremism
What issues did this case raise?
In the case of Begg v British Broadcasting Corporation  EWHC 2688 (QB), the claimant, the Chief Imam at Lewisham Islamic Centre, sued the BBC for libel following a broadcast of Sunday Politics on 3 November 2013 during which Andrew Neil, the host of the show, said the following words during an interview with a studio guest:
‘The East London Mosque, which you personally and the MCB closely associated with, it’s also the venue for a number of extremist speakers and speakers who espouse extremist positions. This year Shakeel Begg, he spoke there and hailed jihad as “the greatest of deeds”. In 2009 the mosque hosted a video presentation by somebody described by US security as an Al-Quaeda supporter. You had another speaker there who in the past had described Christians and Jews as “filth”. You’ve had a jihadist supporter of the Taliban there. Why do you do nothing to stop extremism, extremists like that, at this mosque with which you’re associated with.’
The questions for the court were:
- What do the words complained of mean?
- Are they substantially true in those meanings?
- If not, what remedies ought to be granted?
What was the court’s decision on meaning?
Having considered the two meanings put forward by the respective parties, the court held that the meaning of the words complained of in this case were that:
- the claimant is an extremist Islamic speaker who espouses extremist Islamic positions, and
- the claimant had recently promoted and encouraged religious violence by telling Muslims that violence in support of Islam would constitute a man’s greatest deed
The BBC accepted that the words complained of were broadcast and admitted that they were defamatory. However, they attempted to rely on the defence of justification, ie truth (the words were broadcast before the Defamation Act 2013 took effect and therefore the defence put forward was the ‘old’ defence of justification). Even though the burden of proof was on the defendant to prove justification, the claimant put forward a substantial amount of evidence showing his positive work in the local community.
Was the BBC’s defence of justification successful?
The BBC relied upon nine separate speeches or written publications from the claimant to justify the words complained of. Each party instructed an expert witness and their respective reports included analysis of:
- the various different meanings of the word ‘jihad’ used in different contexts by the claimant
- translations and meanings of the different Arabic phrases used by the claimant
- the roles and significance of various historical figures cited by the claimant in his various speeches
Having considered each of the nine speeches/publications in detail, the court reached some general conclusions:
- the claimant’s various speeches contained a combination of explicit and implicit extremist language
- the claimant used a variety of linguistic tools to enhance the effect of his extremist message to his (often) informed and engaged audience
- the claimant used a variety of historical and metaphorical devices to cloak and embellish his extremist message, and
- the claimant used his position as an Imam to state extremist religious theological positions
The court considered the evidence put forward by the claimant in respect of his strong, positive reputation in the local Lewisham community, and concluded that the claimant was a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character who presented a positive, moderate face to the general local and inter-faith community, and another extreme, intolerant face to other receptive audiences.
Given the precise meaning of the words complained of (ie that the claimant is an ‘extremist speaker’ rather than an ‘extremist’), for the BBC’s defence to succeed it was not strictly necessary for the court to find that the claimant personally held extremist Islamic views (merely that he spoke and espoused them), but it did so in any event. The court found there was no evidence that the claimant had moved away from these views since the broadcast and held that his extremist messages would be even more compelling because of his ‘ostensible cloak of respectability’.
The court therefore concluded that the BBC’s defence of justification was successful. Indeed, the court stated that one of the claimant’s speeches relied upon by the BBC, from 2009, would have been sufficient on its own to make the case of justification. Finally, the court also concluded that even if the BBC’s pleas of justification not been fully made out on the evidence (which it had been) then the claimant’s damages would have been nil or nominal because of his, at best, reckless and irresponsible use of language when speaking to predominantly Muslim audiences about the sensitive subject of ‘jihad’.
What are the implications of the judgment?
The case did not create any new legal principles. However, it was a useful illustration of how a libel trial is fought where the only issue is whether the words complained of are substantially true or not. When such a defence is advanced, the burden is always on the defendant to prove the words were substantially true (the ‘presumption of falsity’). Often this might be difficult. However, in this case, despite the claimant’s efforts to advance a ‘positive case’ with his apparently good reputation in the local community, the BBC had little difficulty in adducing evidence of truth.
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Articles are intended as an introduction to the topic and do not constitute legal advice.