Hunt v Star Newspaper Co Ltd: CA 1908

The defendant’s publication imputed to the plaintiff improper conduct in the discharge of his duties as a deputy returning officer at a municipal election. The defendant pleaded fair comment.
Held: The complaint related to allegations of fact but the sting of the article was that the conduct of the plaintiff had been politically motivated. The court distinguished between (i) defamatory allegations of fact, which had to be clearly and fairly stated, and to be true; (ii) literary criticism, which need not be reasonable but had to be honest, and (iii) imputations of motive amounting to an attack on the character of the plaintiff, which had to be reasonably drawn from the facts.
Fletcher Moulton LJ said: ‘in order to give room for the plea of fair comment the facts must be truly stated. If the facts upon which the comment purports to be made do not exist the foundation of the plea fails’ and ‘If the facts are stated separately and the comment appears as an inference drawn from those facts, any injustice that it might do will be to some extent be negatived by the reader seeing the grounds upon which the unfavourable inference is based. But if fact and comment be intermingled so that it is not reasonably clear what portion purports to be inference, he will naturally suppose that the injurious statements are based on adequate grounds known to the writer though not necessarily set out by him. In the one case the insufficiency of the facts to support the inference will lead fair-minded men to reject the inference. In the other case it merely points to the existence of extrinsic facts which the writer considers to warrant the language he uses’
and ‘The law as to fair comment, so far as is material to the present case, stands as follows: In the first place, comment in order to be justifiable as fair comment must appear as comment and must not be so mixed up with the facts that the reader cannot distinguish between what is report and what is comment: see Andrews v Chapman (1853) 3 C and K 286. The justice of this rule is obvious. If the facts are stated separately and the comment appears as an inference drawn from those facts, any injustice that it might do will be to some extent negatived by the reader seeing the grounds upon which the unfavourable inference is based. But if fact and comment be intermingled so that it is not reasonably clear what portion purports to be inference, he will naturally suppose that the injurious statements are based on adequate grounds known to the writer though not necessarily set out by him. In the one case the insufficiency of the facts to support the inference will lead fair-minded men to reject the inference. In the other case it merely points to the existence of extrinsic facts which the writer considers to warrant the language he uses.
Any matter, therefore, which does not indicate with a reasonable clearness that it purports to be comment, and not statement of fact, cannot be protected by the plea of fair comment. In the next place, in order to give room for the plea of fair comment the facts must be truly stated. If the facts upon which the comment purports to be made do not exist the foundation of the plea fails.
Finally, comment must not convey imputations of an evil sort except so far as the facts truly stated warrant the imputation . . . To allege a criminal intention or a disreputable motive as actuating an individual is to make an allegation of fact which must be supported by adequate evidence. I agree that an allegation of fact may be justified by its being an inference from other facts truly stated, but . . in order to warrant it the jury must be satisfied that such inference ought to be drawn from those facts.’

Judges:

Fletcher Moulton LJ

Citations:

[1908] 2 KB 309

Jurisdiction:

England and Wales

Citing:

CitedCampbell v Spottiswoode 1863
The plaintiff, a dissenting Protestant minister, sought to advance Christianity in China by promoting a newspaper with letters emphasising its importance. The defendant attacked him in a rival newspaper, saying his motive was not to take the gospel . .
CitedDakhyl v Labouchere HL 1908
(Note) The plaintiff complained of a publication by the defendant that he was a ‘quack of the rankest species’.
Held: Lord Atkinson said that a personal attack could form part of a fair comment on facts stated provided that it was a reasonable . .
CitedMerivale v Carson CA 1887
A published criticism of a play made reference to one of the characters being ‘a naughty wife’, though in fact there was no adulterous wife in the play.
Held: The defence of fair comment is open to a commentator however prejudiced he might be, . .
CitedAndrews v Chapman 1853
A report does not cease to be fair because there are some slight inaccuracies or omissions. However, comment in order to be justifiable as fair comment must appear as comment and must not be so mixed up with the facts that the reader cannot . .

Cited by:

CitedLowe v Associated Newspapers Ltd QBD 28-Feb-2006
The defendant sought to defend the claim for defamation by claiming fair comment. The claimant said that the relevant facts were not known to the defendant at the time of the publication.
Held: To claim facts in aid of a defence of fair . .
CitedSpiller and Another v Joseph and Others SC 1-Dec-2010
The defendants had published remarks on its website about the reliability of the claimant. When sued in defamation, they pleaded fair comment, but that was rejected by the Court of Appeal.
Held: The defendants’ appeal succeeded, and the fair . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Defamation

Updated: 01 May 2022; Ref: scu.240315