HomeInsightsMet Police successful in proving defences of truth, privilege, and no serious harm in High Court defamation case in relation to article on its website

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The article complained of was headed: “Two guilty of killing a woman while racing their cars”. The article stated that the claimant, William Alexander Spicer, was one of the two racers. The reader was also told that whilst both men had faced a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, as well as one of causing serious injury by dangerous driving, Mr Spicer had been acquitted of both those charges, and convicted of careless driving. Only the other man, Farid Reza, was actually convicted of causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving.

Mr Spicer issued defamation proceedings against the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis on the basis that she was responsible for the operation of the Met Police news website on which the article was published. A link to the article was also posted on the Met Police’s Twitter account.

The meaning of the article was determined by Mr Justice Warby following a preliminary issue trial. Warby J found that the body of the article made it clear that Mr Reza and Mr Spicer were both charged with and tried for causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving; that Mr Reza was convicted of both charges; but that Mr Spicer was acquitted of both. The headline was inconsistent with the article, he said, and while some readers would only read the headline and not the rest of the article, his findings were that it was not unfair as Mr Spicer was not identified until paragraph [4] of the article. Therefore, the only readers who could identify him as a subject of the article would also know the fuller picture presented in the rest of the article.

The Commissioner of Police pleaded three defences under the Defamation Act 2013:

  1. no serious harm: the article had not caused Mr Spicer serious harm under s 1 of the 2013 Act;
  2. substantially true: the article, in the meaning found by Warby J, was substantially true for the purposes of s 2 of the 2013 Act; and
  3. statutory absolute and qualified privilege: the article consisted of a fair and accurate report of legal proceedings in public brought against Mr Spicer (i.e. the criminal trial), which was published contemporaneously. Accordingly, the Article was published on an occasion of absolute privilege pursuant to s 14 of the Defamation Act 1996. Further or alternatively, the article was published on an occasion of qualified privilege pursuant to s 15 and Schedule 1 of the 1996 Act.

Truth

Mr Justice Knowles noted that the court’s task was to determine whether the sting of the libel, i.e. the defamatory imputation arising from the meaning of the statement complained of, was substantially true.

Knowles J said that there were two imputations arising from the article’s meaning:

  1. Mr Spicer took part in a car race with an acquaintance, Mr Reza, showing off by driving their high-performance cars at excessive speeds; Mr Spicer had three friends in the car; during the race, Mr Reza’s car struck and killed a pedestrian, Hina Shamim;

    this was a Chase level one imputation, i.e. an actual accusation of guilt of impugned behaviour; and

  2. there were reasonable grounds to suspect Mr Spicer of guilt of causing death and serious injury by dangerous driving, in respect of which he was arrested, tried and acquitted;

    this was a Chase level two imputation, i.e. an imputation that there were grounds to suspect that Mr Spicer was guilty of the impugned behaviour.

In respect of the first imputation, there were various points in dispute, including whether Mr Spicer and Mr Reza were acquaintances, and whether they took part in a race.

Knowles J said that, overall, there was sufficient flexibility in the term “acquaintance” to cover the connection between Mr Spicer and Mr Reza presented in evidence. If that was wrong, Knowles J said that this was a peripheral detail that did not affect the substantial truth of the imputation. The reasonable reader would conclude that it did not matter, if the evidence was that they had engaged in a high-speed race that had resulted in Ms Shamim’s death. A defence of truth can still succeed even if the defendant fails to prove the truth of every detail alleged, he said.

As for whether the two men were racing, Knowles J said that this was an important part of the article and, together with the speed driven by Mr Spicer, lay at the heart of the reprehensible behaviour alleged against him. The evidence was that, before the accident, Mr Reza had overtaken Mr Spicer at speed on a roundabout. Knowles J said that this had been a catalyst for a change in Mr Spicer’s driving, which up until then had not been remarkable, according to data from the car. He found that from that point, there was a sustained period of acceleration as Mr Spicer followed Mr Reza to the point of the accident, by which time he was travelling at about 69mph, the fastest speed he had driven that day.

Knowles J said that, in the absence of any convincing explanation from Mr Spicer as to why he suddenly accelerated and drove so fast, the inference was that he was chasing Mr Reza in an effort to keep up with him, if not to overtake him. It was a race, as both men drove at accelerating speeds because they were reacting to the presence and speed of the other car.

Knowles J also found that Mr Spicer drove as he did in significant part because he was being encouraged by his three friends in the car, and that he was showing off the car’s capabilities to them.

The Met Police had therefore proved the substantial truth of the first imputation. Knowles J also said that, as a result of this finding, the Met Police had also proved primary facts and matters that had given rise to the second imputation.

The defence of truth therefore succeeded.

Privilege

Mr Spicer accepted that the article was published contemporaneously with the criminal trial but argued that the privileged paragraphs of the article had lost their privileged status, as they were rendered unfair and/or inaccurate as a result of the inclusion of certain extraneous material that was grossly unfair and inaccurate.

Knowles J agreed that there were three instances of extraneous material in the article: i) the allegation of racing; ii) remarks made by a police officer; and iii) the suggested connection between Mr Spicer and Mr Reza.

Knowles J said that racing had been a central core component of the prosecution’s case in the criminal proceedings and that the reasonable reader would therefore have understood the references to racing in the article as a reiteration of what the prosecution had said at trial. Overall, while the jury did not find Mr Spicer guilty of causing death or serious injury by dangerous driving, and the allegations of racing in certain paragraphs amounted to material extraneous to the report, the material in those paragraphs was contained in the balance of the paragraphs and hence did not distort the article so as to render the privileged paragraphs unfair or inaccurate such that the privilege was lost.

As for the police officer’s remarks, which were set out in a paragraph recognisably distinct from the privileged paragraphs, Knowles J said that the reasonable reader would have understood them to have been his personal opinion about the case, said in the context of what the prosecution had said at the trial.

Finally, Knowles J said, given the evidence on Mr Spicer’s knowledge of Mr Reza (which had resulted in a finding that they were “acquaintances”), which broadly mirrored what was said at the trial, the “small detail” in the article, which was that the two men “were not friends but knew each other locally”, did not affect the fairness and accuracy of the privileged paragraphs.

Accordingly, the privileged paragraphs did not lose their privilege by reason of extraneous material in the article. They were absolutely privileged under s 14.

Serious harm

Knowles J found that other than Mr Spicer’s bare assertion that it was the Met Police article that had caused him serious harm, there was no evidence to show that it was the article and not other widespread reporting in various publications, including national newspapers, that had caused him harm.

The distinctive feature of the article, as compared with the other material, was its headline, Knowles J said. But Warby J had held that its impact was blunted by the rest of the article. In Knowles J’s view, the meaning of the article was not meaningfully different from the other reporting about the case.

Mr Spicer claimed that 50 people had shunned him since the article was published. Knowles J noted, however, that Ms Shamim had been a student at Kingston University, as was Mr Spicer, and was killed in front of it. Such a shocking event would have been widely spoken about in the University community in the days and months afterwards, as would Mr Spicer’s involvement in it. By January 2017, it was likely that some people would have decided that Mr Spicer was guilty of causing death by dangerous driving, especially once they had read the national media reporting.

Further, Knowles J could not infer that all of those who re-tweeted the police’s Tweet did so because they believed that Mr Spicer was guilty of causing the death and were endorsing the article. Some may have done, and Mr Spicer referred to hostile comments made by two re-tweeters, but the evidence was vague.

Mr Spicer had therefore failed to prove that publication of the article had caused him serious harm.

Judgment was entered for the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis. (William Spicer v Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis [2021] EWHC 1099 (QB) (6 May 2021) — to read the judgment in full, click here).