House of Lords
|Session 2005 - 06|
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Jameel and others (Respondents) v. Wall Street Journal Europe Sprl (Appellants)
LORD BINGHAM OF CORNHILL
1. This appeal raises two questions on the law of libel. The first concerns the entitlement of a trading corporation such as the second respondent to sue and recover damages without pleading or proving special damage. The second concerns the scope and application of what has come to be called Reynolds privilege, an important form of qualified privilege.
2. The appellant is the publisher of The Wall Street Journal Europe, a respected, influential and unsensational newspaper ("the newspaper") carrying serious news about international business, finance and politics. It is edited, published and printed in Brussels for distribution throughout Europe and the Middle East. It shares some editorial and journalistic personnel and facilities with its elder sister in New York, The Wall Street Journal, which has a large circulation in the United States.
3. The respondents, claimants in the proceedings, are Saudi Arabian. The first respondent is a prominent businessman and president of the Abdul Latif Jameel Group, an international trading conglomerate based in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia comprising numerous companies and with interests in cars, shipping, property and distribution of electronic goods. The second respondent is a company incorporated in Saudi Arabia and is part of the Group. The first respondent is the general manager and president of the company, which does not itself own property or conduct any trade or business here, but which has a commercial reputation in England and Wales.
4. On 6 February 2002 the newspaper published the article which gave rise to these proceedings. It was headed "Saudi Officials Monitor Certain Bank Accounts" with a smaller sub-heading "Focus Is on Those With Potential Terrorist Ties". It bore the by-line of James M Dorsey, an Arabic-speaking reporter with specialist knowledge of Saudi Arabia, and acknowledged the contribution of Glenn Simpson, a staff writer in Washington. The gist of the article, succinctly stated in the first paragraph, was that the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, the Kingdom's central bank, was, at the request of US law enforcement agencies, monitoring bank accounts associated with some of the country's most prominent businessmen in a bid to prevent them from being used, wittingly or unwittingly, for the funnelling of funds to terrorist organisations. This information was attributed to "U.S. officials and Saudis familiar with the issue". In the second paragraph a number of companies and individuals were named, among them "the Abdullatif Jamil Group of companies" who, it was stated later in the article, "couldn't be reached for comment".
5. The jury in due course found that the article referred to was defamatory of both respondents. They may have understood the article to mean that there were reasonable grounds to suspect the involvement of the respondents, or alternatively that there were reasonable grounds to investigate the involvement of the respondents, in the witting or unwitting funnelling of funds to terrorist organisations. For present purposes it is immaterial which defamatory meaning the jury gave the passage complained of, neither of which the newspaper sought to justify.
6. The article was published some five months after the catastrophic events which took place in New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. During the intervening months the US authorities had taken determined steps, with strong international support, to cut off the flow of funds to terrorist organisations, including Al-Qaida. These steps were of particular importance in relation to Saudi Arabia, since a large majority of the suspected hijackers were of Saudi origin, and it was believed that much of their financial support came from Saudi sources. Yet the position of the Saudi authorities was one of some sensitivity. The Kingdom was an ally of the United States and condemned terrorism. But among its devoutly Muslim population there were those who resented the Kingdom's association with the United States and espoused the cause of Islamic jihad. Thus there were questions about whether, and to what extent, the Kingdom was co-operating with the US authorities in cutting off funds to terrorist organisations. This was, without doubt, a matter of high international importance, a very appropriate matter for report by a serious newspaper. But it was a difficult matter to investigate and report since information was not freely available in the Kingdom and the Saudi authorities, even if co-operating closely with those of the United States, might be embarrassed if that fact were to become generally known.
7. The trial of the action before Eady J and a jury lasted some three working weeks and culminated in verdicts for the respondents and awards of £30,000 and £10,000 respectively. Much evidence was called on both sides, of which the House has been referred to short excerpts only. The judge rejected the newspaper's argument on the damage issue ( EWHC 2945 (QB),  2 All ER 92) and the Court of Appeal agreed with him ( EWCA Civ 74,  QB 904). The judge also rejected the newspaper's claim to Reynolds privilege ( EWHC 37 (QB)). On this question also the Court of Appeal upheld his decision, but on a more limited ground. This calls for more detailed consideration.
8. The judge put a series of questions to the jury which, so far as relevant to Reynolds privilege, were directed to two matters: the sources on which Mr Dorsey, as reporter, relied; and his attempt to obtain the respondents' response to his inclusion of their names in his proposed article. Mr Dorsey testified that he had relied on information given by a prominent Saudi businessman (source A), confirmed by a banker (source B), a US diplomat (source C), a US embassy official (source D) and a senior Saudi official (source E). In answer to the judge's questions the jury found that the newspaper had proved that Mr Dorsey had received the information he claimed to have received from source A, but had not proved that Mr Dorsey had received the confirmation he claimed from sources B-E inclusive. The judge attached significance to these negative findings, since Mr Dorsey said in evidence that he would not have written the article in reliance on source A alone. In the Court of Appeal, the judge's reliance on these negative findings was criticised by the newspaper. At the outset of his direction to the jury the judge had pointed out that there was no plea of justification and that therefore, if the jury found the article defamatory of the respondents, they should assume it to be untrue. This direction, it was said, may well have infected the jury's approach to the questions concerning sources B-E. The Court of Appeal refused the newspaper leave to raise a new ground of misdirection, and thought (para 66) that the jury had "almost certainly" based their answers on the impression made by witnesses in court. But the Court of Appeal preferred to base its decision on the other ground relied on by the judge to deny privilege.
9. Mr Dorsey described attempts to obtain a response from the Group about his proposed article. He said he had telephoned the Group office at about 9.0 a.m. and left a recorded message. The jury found that the newspaper had not proved on the balance of probabilities that that was so. There was, it was agreed, a telephone conversation between Mr Dorsey and Mr Munajjed, an employee of the Group, on the evening of 5 February, the day before publication. During that conversation, according to Mr Munajjed, he had asked Mr Dorsey to wait until the following day for a comment by the Group. He had, he said, no authority to make a statement and the first respondent was in Japan, where the time was 3.0 a.m. Mr Dorsey denied that Mr Munajjed had asked him to wait. But the jury found that Mr Munajjed had made that request. It was on this ground, as I understand, that the Court of Appeal upheld the judge's denial of Reynolds privilege:
10. I turn to the two issues raised in the appeal.
11. The issue under this head is whether a trading company which itself conducts no business but which has a trading reputation within England and Wales should be entitled to recover general damages for libel without pleading and proving that the publication complained of has caused it special damage. To resolve this question it is helpful to distinguish three sub-issues:
(1) The current domestic law
12. The tort of libel has long been recognised as actionable per se. Thus where a personal plaintiff proves publication of a false statement damaging to his reputation without lawful justification, he need not plead or prove special damage in order to succeed. Proof of injury to his reputation is enough.
13. It was argued in South Hetton Coal Company Limited v North-Eastern News Association Limited  1 QB 133 that this rule did not apply to trading companies. The newspaper in that case had published an article strongly critical of the way in which the plaintiff, a colliery owner, housed its workers, and the company had not pleaded or proved any actual damage. It was argued for the publisher that a corporation could have no personal character, and that the article had not related to the business of the company (pp 134, 137). The Court of Appeal unanimously rejected this argument. Lord Esher MR held the law of libel to be one and the same for all plaintiffs (p 138). While he referred to obvious differences between individuals and companies (pp 138-139), his conclusion (p 139) was clear:
There need be no evidence of particular damage (p 140). Lopes LJ agreed (p 141): a company may maintain an action for a libel reflecting on the management of its business without alleging or proving special damage. Kay LJ also agreed (p 148): a trading corporation may sue for a libel calculated to injure them in respect of their business, and may do so without any proof of damage general or special, although, where there is no such evidence, the damages given will probably be small.
14. In Lewis v Daily Telegraph Ltd  AC 234, 262, Lord Reid pointed out that a company cannot be injured in its feelings but only in its pocket. There was, however, no challenge in that case to the principle laid down in South Hetton, which was not cited in either party's printed case, or in argument, or in any judgment.
15. Mr Robertson QC, for the newspaper, pointed out, quite correctly, that the Faulks Committee on Defamation, in its Report (Cmnd 5909, March 1975), para 336, recommended amendment of the South Hetton rule. The amendment recommended was, however, only to limit libel actions by trading corporations to cases where the trading corporation could establish either that it had suffered special damage or that the defamation was likely to cause it financial damage. This recommendation was made after considering trenchant criticisms of the existing rule made by Mr J A Weir ("Local Authority v Critical Ratepayer - a Suit in Defamation" (1972A) CLJ 238). It is not a recommendation to which Parliament has chosen to give effect.
16. In Derbyshire County Council v Times Newspapers Ltd the issue concerned the entitlement of a local authority, not a trading corporation, to sue in libel. But at first instance South Hetton was cited, and contributed to Morland J's conclusion that a local authority could sue:  QB 770, 781, 783-788. On appeal, counsel for the newspaper distinguished South Hetton on the ground of the colliery company's trading character and counsel for the local authority relied on it: ibid, pp 792, 797. No member of the Court of Appeal questioned the decision. Balcombe LJ accepted South Hetton as binding for what it decided, but also (despite Mr Weir's criticism) expressed his agreement with it: p 809. In the House, counsel for the local authority cited the decision ( AC 534, 536-537). Counsel for the newspaper did not criticise it, but distinguished it as applicable to a company with a business reputation which a local authority did not have (p 538). In his leading opinion, with which the other members of the House agreed, Lord Keith of Kinkel (who had been a member of the Faulks committee) cited South Hetton at some length, and also National Union of General and Municipal Workers v Gillian  KB 81, in which a non-trading corporation (a trade union) had been assimilated to a trading corporation. He then continued (p 547):
Lord Keith then went on to give his reasons for concluding that a local authority was to be distinguished from other types of corporation, whether trading or non-trading.
17. In Derbyshire the correctness of South Hetton was not challenged, but acceptance of its correctness was an important step in Lord Keith's reasoning and I find no ambiguity in the proposition he propounded: the authorities clearly establish that a trading corporation is entitled to sue in respect of defamatory matters which can be seen as having a tendency to damage it in the way of its business. In Shevill v Presse Alliance SA  AC 959, decided some three years later by a differently constituted committee of the House, one of the plaintiffs was a trading corporation and the presumption of damage in libel cases was treated as part of our national substantive law. I conclude that under the current law of England and Wales a trading company with a trading reputation in this country may recover general damages without pleading or proving special damage if the publication complained of has a tendency to damage it in the way of its business.
(2) Article 10
18. Article 10 of the European Convention provides:
The central importance of this article in the Convention regime is clear beyond question, and is reflected in section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998. Freedom to publish free of unjustifiable restraint must indeed be recognised as a distinguishing feature of the sort of society which the Convention seeks to promote. The newspaper in this case relies on article 10 to contend that a domestic rule entitling a trading corporation to sue in libel when it can prove no financial loss is an unreasonable restraint on the right to publish protected by article 10.