Charleston and another v News Group Newspapers Ltd and another

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeLord Goff of Chieveley,Lord Bridge of Harwich,Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle,Lord Mustill,Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead
Judgment Date30 March 1995
Judgment citation (vLex)[1995] UKHL J0330-1
CourtHouse of Lords
Docket NumberParliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JU/18/255
Date30 March 1995
Charleston and another
News Group Newspapers Limited and another

[1995] UKHL J0330-1

Lord Goff of Chieveley

Lord Bridge of Harwich

Lord Jauncey of Tullichettle

Lord Mustill

Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead

Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JU/18/255


Lord Goff of Chieveley

My Lords,


I have had the advantage of reading in draft the speech of my noble and learned friend, Lord Bridge of Harwich. For the reasons he gives I too would dismiss the appeal.

Lord Bridge of Harwich

My Lords,


The appellants are the plaintiffs in an action claiming damages for libel against the publishers and editor of the News of the World in respect of an article which appeared in that newspaper on 15 March 1992. A preliminary issue was ordered to be tried as to whether the article in question was capable of bearing any of the defamatory meanings pleaded in the plaintiffs' statement of claim. On 22 January 1993 Blofeld J. determined the preliminary issue in favour of the defendants and consequently dismissed the action. On 17 December 1993 the plaintiffs' appeal from that decision was unaminously dismissed by the Court of Appeal (Butler-Sloss, Farquharson and Nolan L.JJ.) (unreported) Court of Appeal (Civil Division) Transcript No. 1549 of 1993. The plaintiffs now appeal by leave of your Lordships' House.


The plaintiffs are an actor and actress who played the parts of Harold and Madge Bishop, a respectable married couple, in the popular Australian television serial "Neighbours" and were thus well known to an English audience of millions. The article complained of appears with a headline across most of the page in capital letters three quarters of an inch high which reads: "STREWTH! WHAT's HAROLD UP TO WITH OUR MADGE?"


Immediately beneath this is a large photograph of a man and a woman nearly naked. The woman is leaning forward over some piece of furniture and the man is standing behind her apparently engaging in an act of intercourse or sodomy with her. Superimposed over the lower part of their bodies is an outline map of Australia bearing the words "CENSORED DOWN UNDER." To the right of this is another smaller photograph of a woman wearing a tightfitting blouse or jacket with holes cut to expose her bare breasts. The face of the man in the large photograph is the male plaintiff's and the face of the woman in both photographs is the female plaintiff's. Below the photographs is another smaller, but still prominent, headline which reads: "Porn Shocker for Neighbours stars". The captions under the photographs are in small print and read respectively: "SOAP STUDS: Harold and Madge's faces are added to porn actors' bodies in a scene from the game." and "RAMSAY RAVE: 'Madge' in kinky leather gear." Ramsay Street is where the action of "Neighbours" is set.


The text of the article which follows makes it clear that the photographs have been produced by the makers of a pornographic computer game by superimposing the faces of the plaintiffs without their knowledge or consent on the bodies of others. The opening paragraphs of the article read:

"What would the Neighbours say … straight laced Harold Bishop starring in a bondage session with screen wife Madge.

The famous faces from the TV soap are the unwitting stars of a sordid computer game that is available to their child fans… .

The game superimposes stars' heads on near-naked bodies of real porn models. The stars knew nothing about it."


Beside this text are inset two small photographs of the plaintiffs with the caption: "VICTIMS: Ian and Anne."; The remainder of the article castigates the makers of the "sordid computer game" in a tone of self righteous indignation which contrasts oddly with the prominence given to the main photograph.


The plaintiffs must have found this publication deeply offensive and insulting. Many people will not only deplore this kind of gutter journalism but will think that the law ought to give some redress to the plaintiffs against the publication of such degrading faked photographs irrespective of what the accompanying text may have said. I have considerable sympathy with this point of view.


However, your Lordships are not concerned to pronounce on any question of journalistic ethics nor to consider whether the publication of the photographs by itself constituted some novel tort. The single question of law to which the appeal gives rise is whether the plaintiffs have any remedy in the tort of defamation on the basis of their pleaded claim, and this in turn narrows down to the question whether a claim in defamation in respect of a publication which, it is conceded, is not defamatory if considered as a whole, may nevertheless succeed on the ground that some readers will have read part only of the published matter and that this part, considered in isolation, is capable of bearing a defamatory meaning.


The plaintiffs' statement of claim alleges that the publication conveyed to the reader a number of defamatory meanings. The basis on which all these alleged meanings rest is that the reader would have drawn the inference that the plaintiffs had been willing participants in the production of the photographs, either by posing for them personally or by agreeing that their faces should be superimposed on the bodies of others. But it is conceded on the plaintiffs' behalf, and is indeed obvious, that no reader could possibly have drawn any such inference if he had read beyond the first paragraph of the text. Thus the essential basis on which Mr. Craig's argument in support of the appeal rests is that, in appropriate circumstances, it is possible and legitimate to identify a particular group of readers who read only part of a publication which conveys to them a meaning injurious to the reputation of a plaintiff and that in principle the plaintiff should be entitled to damages for the consequent injury he suffers in the estimation of this group.


It is well settled, as Mr. Craig accepts, that, save in the case of a legal innuendo dependent on extrinsic facts known to certain readers, no evidence is admissible as to the sense in which readers understood an allegedly defamatory publication. No legal innuendo is here alleged. But here, so Mr. Craig's argument runs, it goes without saying and no evidence is required to establish that, out of the many millions constituting the readership of a mass circulation newspaper like the News of the World, a significant proportion, when they saw the page of which the plaintiffs complain, would have done no more than to have read the headlines and looked at the photographs. It will be convenient to refer to this group as the "limited readers". The argument before your Lordships was substantially confined to the effect of the publication on the minds of the limited readers. They would, Mr. Craig submits, have drawn an inference defamatory of the plaintiffs as actors willing to participate in pornographic films and it should be left to a jury to estimate the size of the group constituted by the limited readers and to award damages accordingly for the injury which the plaintiffs' reputation must have suffered in the estimation of this group.


The first formidable obstacle which Mr. Craig's argument encounters is a long and unbroken line of authority the effect of which is accurately summarised in Duncan & Neill on Defamation, 2nd ed. (1983), p. 13, para. 4.11 as follows:

"In order to determine the natural and ordinary meaning of the words of which the plaintiff complains it is necessary to take into account the context in which the words were used and the mode of publication.

Thus a plaintiff cannot select an isolated passage in an article and complain of that alone if other parts of the article throw a different light on that passage."


The locus classicus is a passage from the judgment of Alderson B. in Chalmers v. Payne (1835) 2 C.M.& R.156, 159, who said:

"But the question here is, whether the matter be slanderous or not, which is a question for the jury; who are to take the whole together, and say whether the result of the whole is calculated to injure the plaintiff's character. In one part of this publication, something disreputable to the plaintiff is stated, but that is removed by the...

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