Lib Dem leader granted interim interdict over SNP ‘defamatory’ election leaflet
The leader of the Liberal Democrats has been granted interim interdict to prohibit a Scottish National Party rival from distributing an election leaflet which claimed she had “accepted a £14K donation from a fracking company”.
Jo Swinson argued that the statement, which was contained in a flyer produced by Amy Callaghan, a fellow candidate for the East Dunbartonshire constituency in the forthcoming General Election, was “false and defamatory”.
A judge in the Court of Session granted interdict ad interim after ruling that the Lib Dem leader had put forward a “prima facie” case that the statement was defamatory and would “lower her reputation in the estimation of reasonable readers”.
Lord Pentland heard that the petitioner raised an action against the SNP and Amy Callaghan over an election leaflet which stated: “make climate change a priority, unlike Jo Swinson who accepted a £14K donation from a fracking company”.
Ms Swinson complained that the statement was both defamatory of her and in breach of section 106 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 because it was a “false statement of fact in relation to the petitioner’s character or conduct”.
She maintained that she had never accepted a donation from a “fracking company”.
She explained that her constituency office received a donation of £14,000 from Mark Petterson, one of the directors of Warwick Energy Limited, a company specialising in offshore wind energy.
But the petitioner averred that the donation was made by Mr Petterson in a “personal capacity”, and that Warwick Energy has never made any donation to any political party or to any politician.
While Warwick Energy had been granted a fracking licence, it had never carried out any shale gas fracking operations and, so far as the petitioner was aware, it had “no intention” to engage in such operations.
Ms Swinson averred that, as was well known, she had made various pledges to tackle climate change and was “opposed to fracking”.
She argued that the statement represented, directly and by “innuendo”, that she was a “hypocrite” who was prone to accepting money from companies who engaged in the very conduct that she campaigned against.
The judge considered that the petitioner had put forward a “strong prima facie” case.
In a written judgment, Lord Pentland said: “In my opinion, the statement of which the petitioner complains is, on the information put before the court, false in substance and materially inaccurate.
“The petitioner or her constituency office, and I consider these to be one and the same for present purposes, did not accept a donation from a fracking company.
“The petitioner offers to prove that her stance as a campaigner against fracking is one that is publicly and politically well known.
“Against that background, it seems to me that the statement complained of is one that is liable to create in the mind of the reasonable reader the impression that the petitioner is hypocritical in relation to her position on the politically controversial issue of fracking.
“On the one hand the petitioner is said to have campaigned against fracking. At the same time she is alleged to have accepted money from a fracking company.
“In these circumstances, I consider that the petitioner has put forward in the petition a prima facie case that the statement in the leaflet would tend to make electors think the worse of her, and that the statement would tend to lower her reputation in the estimation of reasonable readers. There is therefore, in my view, a prima facie case to the effect that the statement complained of is defamatory.”
As to the second branch of the petitioner’s case, brought under section 106 of the 1983 Act, the judge was again satisfied that the petitioner had put forward a prima facie case that the false statement related to her personal character or conduct.
He continued: “As I have already said, the gist of the representation made is that the petitioner has acted hypocritically by accepting a substantial financial donation from a fracking company, that being conduct which is alleged to be incompatible with her stated political position as an opponent of fracking.
“This reflects adversely on her personal character or conduct.
“I conclude that the petitioner has in her petition put forward a strong prima facie case on both branches of her pleaded allegations.”
“As to the balance of convenience,” Lord Pentland concluded, “in my opinion, this favours interim interdict being granted so as to prohibit further distribution of the election leaflet. Whatever currency may have already been given to these or similar allegations, I do not consider that it would be right for an official election leaflet, which contains prima facie defamatory statements and statements that are in breach of section 106 of the 1983 Act, to be distributed by the Royal Mail. That would, in my opinion, be contrary to sound public policy.”
© Scottish Legal News Ltd 2020