Carer’s defamation appeal against newspaper over ‘misleading’ headline dismissed

A carer who sued a local newspaper for defamation has had an appeal against a sheriff’s decision to dismiss the claim rejected.

The Sheriff Appeal Court upheld the sheriff’s decision after ruling that there was “no basis” for finding that the article was defamatory.

‘False and defamatory’

Appeal Sheriff Andrew Cubie QC heard that the appellant Michael Dawson had raised a simple procedure claim for defamation at Dundee Sheriff Court against publishers DC Thomson over a newspaper article which appeared in the Evening Telegraph in October 2017.

The article reported on a successful court action which the appellant had raised for payment due from his employers because of restrictions on his ability to take a break while working as a career.

The headline of the article read: “Worker had to eat with sex offender”.

The appellant claimed that the article was “false and defamatory”, but the respondents denied any defamatory meaning.

After a hearing at which evidence was led, the sheriff dismissed the claim finding that the article was an honest account based on the claimant’s version of events as given to the journalist, and the court judgment in relation to unpaid work claim.

The party litigant appellant argued that there was nothing in the material before the sheriff which would justify the headline.

He submitted that the sheriff failed to distinguish between being on a break and having to eat with a sex offender - he did not “have to eat” with the sex offender; he chose to do so.

He chose to stay in the service user’s home, chose to eat there, and chose to do so in the company of the service user who was a sex offender.

The story, he said, should have been about unlawful deductions from wages.

‘Unfair and unacceptable’

It was argued that the sheriff failed to recognise the “prejudice and maliciousness” of the article.

He complained that once the journalist found out that the service user was a sex offender, the reporter changed the emphasis of the article to support a misleading and false headline.

He submitted that the article was defamatory because it lowered him in the opinion of right thinking people.

His job was to support vulnerable adults - it was not a problem to him to eat with vulnerable adults.

He had to write a letter of apology to his manager and the service user, who was described as a “paranoid schizophrenic sex offender”, which although was literally true, was “unfair and unacceptable” journalism.

On behalf of the publishers, it was submitted that the sheriff had been entitled to make the findings in fact which he did and to reach the conclusion which he did. 

The sheriff had properly considered the evidence and the correct legal test and had determined that the article was not defamatory. 

‘No error in sheriff’s approach’

The appeal sheriff ruled that the material before the sheriff supported the findings in fact he made.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Sheriff Cubie said: “While the headline may from the appellant’s point of view have put an undesirable spin on the facts, neither the headline nor the article are untrue and, inevitably, they are not defamatory.

“He may not have liked the juxtaposition of the two established facts, but that cannot found a claim for defamation.

“The appellant cannot succeed in establishing that there was any error in the sheriff’s approach to the facts.

“So far as the nature of the article, the appellant argues that it was malicious and defamatory. In my view, on the facts found, there was no error in the sheriff’s approach. 

“He had regard to the tests in both Sim v Stretch [1936] 2 All ER 1237 and Steele v Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail Ltd 1970 SLT 53 finding neither satisfied; the article was not untrue; there is no basis for finding that it was defamatory.”

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