09 December 2020 - Events
Reassuring news from the High Court for press officers and anyone involved in issuing media statements about the risks of being sued for libel.
A claim that was brought over a quote issued by a press office that was subsequently included in a newspaper article has failed. The judgment gives guidance that a spokesperson cannot be held responsible for ‘inaccuracy or spin’ which might be added later by a media publisher.
The facts of the case are complex but it related to a quote given by the National College for Teaching and Leadership (‘NCTL’) in the context of professional conduct proceedings against an individual Mr A. Following a hearing in those proceedings, the NCTL was asked for a reaction and issued a short statement in which it expressed disappointment at the outcome of the hearing. The newspaper included the quote in an article which also had much more detail about the case (a claim against the newspaper was earlier dismissed). Mr A issued legal proceedings against the NCTL over the two –paragraph quote which he claimed was defamatory of him.
There are always risks of making media statements in acrimonious disputes. In such a febrile environment, where parties are already deeply hostile to each other, there is a greater likelihood that a party might seize upon any perceived opportunity to complain against the other. This arises not only in legal disputes, or as in this case professional conduct hearings, but also in activist campaigns, competitor wars or boardroom battles. Really, in any situation where there are two opposed and highly-motived camps taking swings at each other.
Helpfully, the Judge’s guidance to spokespeople includes that they cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracy, spin or additional material added by the media publisher which alters the meaning of what they said; a spokesperson is entitled to assume that any quote will appear in an article that is fair and accurate; and if the resulting article is not fair and accurate and it gives the supplied statement a different and damaging meaning, then the spokesperson should not be held liable for that.
This is common sense but nonetheless it serves as a reminder that issuing statements is not a risk-free activity. Anyone ‘publishing’ statements about another person or company can be held responsible for their own statements, and for the foreseeable repetition of them. So if a sensational defamatory statement to a small group of Twitter followers is predictably picked up and re-published globally, then the claim can be for all of the harm caused.
The late Max Clifford was obliged to pay damages as a result of comments he made when acting for an individual selling a story to the tabloid newspapers which tended to suggest that the individual’s claims were true, when it later emerged they were a fabrication. The risk to external advisers is also perhaps greater when they may be at a greater remove from the underlying facts. It is therefore always sensible for anyone who is advocating professionally for another – PR, press officer, spokesperson, public affairs – to check that an agreement is in place dealing with which party will bear the legal risk and cost of any complaint, and to take legal advice on any obviously high-risk statements before issue.
For advice on media statements and reputational issues arising from disputes, please contact our Media and Reputation team.