Charleston and Another v News Group Newspapers Ltd and Another: HL 31 Mar 1995

The plaintiffs were actors playing Harold and Madge Bishop in the Australian soap series ‘Neighbours’. They sued on a tabloid newspaper article which showed their faces superimposed on the near-naked bodies of models apparently engaged in sexual intercourse, with a headline ‘Strewth! What’s Harold up to with our Madge?’. The body of the article made clear that the photographs had been produced by pornographers without the plaintiffs’ consent. The claim was based on the contention that some readers would have looked only at the photographs and the headline, and complained that such readers would have thought that the plaintiffs had in some way consented to the production of the photographs. The defendant newspaper had published an article with a headline and illustrated by photographs. The plaintiff complained of the meaning which they said was conveyed to a publishee who read the headline and looked at the picture, but did not read the article. The question for the court was whether the publication could bear two meanings: one for that group of readers who read the headline and looked at the pictures, but did not read the article, and a second meaning for publishees who read and looked at all three, the headline, the pictures and the article.
Held: A plaintiff in defamation proceedings may not arbitrarily split off different parts of a publication without good reason. Words must be read in context, and as a whole. A potentially defamatory photograph was accompanied by text which should be read with it. It was accepted that the obviously defamatory headline and photographs were neutralised by the accompanying text.
The House set out the single meaning rule to the effect that for purposes of the law of libel a defamatory statement is taken to have a single meaning, to be determined by the judge or jury as appropriate, and this is so even if different readers would read the same statements as having different meanings. The statement must of course be read as a whole or, as it has been put, ‘the bane and the antidote must be taken together’.
Lord Nicholls said: ‘This is not to say that words in the text of an article will always be efficacious to cure a defamatory headline. It all depends on the context, one element in which is the lay out of the article. Those who print defamatory headlines are playing with fire. The ordinary reader might not be expected to notice curative words tucked away further down the article. The more so, if the words are on a continuation page to which a reader is directed. The standard of the ordinary reader gives [the Court] adequate scope to return a verdict meeting the justice of the case’. The proper approach is to determine what is the single meaning which the work conveys to the notional reasonable reader. ‘Whether the text of a newspaper article will, in any particular case, be sufficient to neutralise the defamatory implication of a prominent headline will sometimes be a nicely balanced question . . and will depend not only on the nature of the libel which the headline conveys and language of the text which is relied on to neutralise it, but also on the manner in which the whole of the relevant material is set out and presented.’ There is an artificiality about this approach since, especially in the case of a book, not all readers will read it from cover to cover.
Lord Bridge said: ‘[the essential basis on which Mr. Craig’s argument in support of the appeal rests is that, in appropriate circumstances, it is possible and legitimate to identify a particular group of readers who read only part of a publication which conveys to them a meaning injurious to the reputation of a plaintiff and that in principle the plaintiff should be entitled to damages for the consequent injury he suffers in the estimation of this group . . The first formidable obstacle which Mr. Craig’s argument encounters is a long and unbroken line of authority the effect of which is accurately summarised in Duncan and Neill on Defamation . . as follows: ‘In order to determine the natural and ordinary meaning of the words of which the plaintiff complains it is necessary to take into account the context in which the words were used and the mode of publication. Thus a plaintiff cannot select an isolated passage in an article and complain of that alone if other parts of the article throw a different light on that passage.’
. . And ‘Whether the text of a newspaper article will, in any particular case, be sufficient to neutralise the defamatory implication of a prominent headline will sometimes be a nicely balanced question for the jury to decide and will depend not only on the nature of the libel which the headline conveys and the language of the text which is relied on to neutralise it but also on the manner in which the whole of the relevant material is set out and presented. But the proposition that the prominent headline, or as here the headlines plus photographs, may found a claim in libel in isolation from its related text, because some readers only read headlines, is to my mind quite unacceptable in the light of the principles discussed above.’

Lord Nicholls, Lord Bridge
Times 31-Mar-1995, Independent 31-Mar-1995, [1995] 2 AC 65, [1995] UKHL 6, [1995] 2 All ER 313, [1995] 2 WLR 450
England and Wales
Appeal fromCharleston and Another v News Group Newspapers Ltd CA 12-Jan-1994
A libel in published photographs was capable of being remedied by the accompanying article. The court should look to the publication as a whole. . .
CitedChalmers v Payne 1835
Bane and Antidote Doctrine – Take them as One
The court considered the bane and antidote doctrine in defamation. B Alderson said: ‘But the question here is, whether the matter be slanderous or not, which is a question of the Jury; who are to take the whole together and say whether the result of . .
ApprovedSlim v Daily Telegraph Ltd CA 1968
Courts to Settle upon a single meaning if disputed
The ‘single meaning’ rule adopted in the law of defamation is in one sense highly artificial, given the range of meanings the impugned words sometimes bear. The law of defamation ‘has passed beyond redemption by the courts’. Where in a libel action . .

Cited by:
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CitedJeynes v News Magazines Ltd and Another CA 31-Jan-2008
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Sir Anthony . .
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CitedCaplin v Associated Newspapers Ltd QBD 20-Jun-2011
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CitedEconomou v De Freitas QBD 27-Jul-2016
Failed action for defamation on rape allegations
The claimant had been accused by the defendant’s daughter of rape. He was never charged but sought to prosecute her alleging intent to pervert the course of justice. She later killed herself. The defendant sought to have the inquest extended to . .
CitedNT 1 and NT 2 v Google Llc QBD 13-Apr-2018
Right to be Forgotten is not absolute
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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Leading Case

Updated: 01 November 2021; Ref: scu.78988