Knupffer (Pauper) v London Express Newspaper, Ltd

JurisdictionUK Non-devolved
JudgeThe Lord Chancellor,Lord Atkin,Lord Thankerton,Lord Russell of Killowen,Lord Porter
Judgment Date03 April 1944
Judgment citation (vLex)[1944] UKHL J0403-1
CourtHouse of Lords
Date03 April 1944
Knupffer (Pauper)
London Express Newspaper Limited

[1944] UKHL J0403-1

Lord Chancellor

Lord Atkin

Lord Thankerton

Lord Russell of Killowen

Lord Porter

House of Lords

After hearing Counsel for the Appellant as well on Monday the 31st day of January last, as on Tuesday the 1st and Wednesday the 2d, days of February last, upon the Petition and Appeal of George Knupffer (Pauper), of 33, Belsize Avenue, in the County of London, praying, That the matter of the Order set forth in the Schedule thereto, namely, an Order of His Majesty's Court of Appeal, of the 30th of October 1942, might be reviewed before His Majesty the King, in His Court of Parliament, and that the said Order might be reversed, varied, or altered, and that the Petitioner might have the relief prayed for in the Appeal, or such other relief in the premises as to His Majesty the King, in His Court of Parliament, might seem meet; as also upon the printed Case of the London Express Newspaper, Limited, lodged in answer to the said Appeal; and Counsel appearing for the Respondents, but not being called upon; and due consideration being had this day of what was offered for the said Appellant:

It is Ordered and Adjudged, by the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Court of Parliament of His Majesty the King assembled, That the said Order of His Majesty's Court of Appeal, of the 30th day of October 1942, complained of in the said Appeal, be, and the same is hereby Affirmed, and that the said Petition and Appeal be, and the same is hereby, dismissed this House.

The Lord Chancellor

My Lords,


It is an essential element of the cause of action for defamation that the words complained of should be published "of the plaintiff". If the words are not so published, the plaintiff is not defamed and cannot have any right to ask that the defendant should be held responsible to him in respect of them. In the case now before us the learned trial Judge, Mr. Justice Stable, decided that the words of the libel did refer to the plaintiff. The Court of Appeal, consisting of Lord Justice MacKinnon and Lord Justice Goddard, decided that the words could not be regarded as referring to the plaintiff, and consequently allowed the appeal and dismissed the action. This is the issue which we now have to decide.


The Defendants printed and published in their newspaper on July 1st, 1941, the words following, which are set out in the Statement of Claim:—

"But the quislings on whom Hitler flatters himself he can build a pro-German movement within the Soviet Union are an emigré group called Mlado Russ or Young Russia.

They are a minute body professing a pure Fascist ideology who have long sought a suitable fuehrer—I know with what success. Established in France and the United States they claim to have secret agents able to enter or leave the Soviet Union at will.

Hitler intends to nominate a puppet fuehrer from their ranks to replace the Soviet national leaders of the Kremlin, and establish a reactionary totalitarian serf State on the German and Italian model.

The proposed line of operation is the seducing of Red Army officers from their allegiance to their country and with their aid destroying trade unions, co-operatives, collective farms, and the Soviet Parliamentary system with a ruthless massacre of all the present leaders, great and small, of the Russian people.

The vast majority of Russian emigrés repudiate these people, but Hitler is accustomed to find instruments among the despised dregs of every community. He intends Ukrainian pogroms as a starting point for general anarchy in Russia."


In these words there is no specific mention of the Plaintiff from beginning to end, and the only countries in which it is stated that this group of émigrés is established are France and the United States. Evidence was given at the trial that the Plaintiff had joined the Young Russia Party in 1928, that in 1935 he became Assistant Representative of the Young Russia Movement in Great Britain, and that in 1938 he was appointed Representative of the Movement in Great Britain and head of the British Branch of the Movement. The headquarters of the Movement were in Paris until June 1940 when they were removed to America.


These facts standing alone, however, do not justify the conclusion that the words complained of are capable of being read as a defamation of the Plaintiff. The words make allegations of a defamatory character about a body of persons—some thousands in number—who belong to a Society whose members are to be found in many countries. In O'Brien v. Eason [1913] 47 Irish L.T. 266, Holmes L.J. and Cherry L.J. ruled that where comments of an alleged defamatory character were made upon an association called the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an individual member of the Order, who was not named nor in any way referred to, could not maintain an action of libel. They referred to a well-known dictum of Willes J., uttered more than 50 years before, in Eastwood v. Holmes [1858] 1 F. & F. at p. 349 that "if a man wrote that all lawyers were thieves, no particular lawyer could sue him unless there is something to point to the particular individual". Where the Plaintiff is not named, the test which decides whether the words used refer to him is the question whether the words are such as would reasonably lead persons acquainted with the Plaintiff to believe that he was the person referred to. There are cases in which the language used in reference to a limited class may be reasonably understood to refer to every member of the class, in which case every member may have a cause of action. A good example is Browne v. Thomson & Co. 1912 S.C. 359, where a newspaper article stated that in Queenstown instructions were issued "by the Roman Catholic religious authorities that all Protestant shop assistants were to be discharged", and where 7 pursuers who averred that they were the sole persons who exercised religious authority in name and on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church in Queenstown were held entitled to sue for libel as being individually defamed. Lord President Dunedin in that case said at p. 363, "I think it is quite evident that if a certain set of people are accused of having done something, and if such accusation is libellous, it is possible for the individuals in that set of people to show that they have been damnified, and it is right that they should have an opportunity of recovering damages as individuals." In the present case, however, the Appellant rejected the view that every member of the Young Russia Group could bring his own action on the words complained of, and relied on his own prominence or representative character in the Movement as establishing that the words referred to himself. There is, however, nothing in the words which refers to one member of the Group rather than another. Le Fanu v. Malcolmson (1848) 1 H.L.C. 637 was, it is true, a decision of this House in which Lord Chancellor Cottenham and Lord Campbell held that the verdict of a jury awarding damages to the owners of a factory in the County of Waterford against the proprietor of a newspaper published in that County could be upheld, notwithstanding that the letter-press in the course of denouncing the alleged cruelty with which factory operatives were treated did not specifically refer to the Plaintiff's factory. It appears, however, in that case that there were circumstances, such as the location of the factory, which enabled the jurors to identify the Plaintiff's factory as the factory pointed at, and the Lord Chancellor observed at p. 664 that "if a party...

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