Morgan v Odhams Press Ltd: HL 1971

The plaintiff claimed in defamation. The defence was that the words did not refer to the plaintiff and could not be understood to refer to him.
Held: The question as to what meaning words are capable of bearing has been described as a question of law, but only in the sense that the decision thereon is reserved to the judge rather than to the jury: ‘It is not a question of law in the true sense.’
The ordinary reasonable reader is a layman, not a lawyer, and his capacity for implication is much greater than that of the lawyer.
Lord Morris said: ‘The question for the Judge at the end of the plaintiff’s case was whether there was evidence upon which the jury could (not would) decide in favour of the plaintiff. That in turn raised the question whether the jury could decide that some readers (having knowledge of certain circumstances) would reasonably understand the words as referring to the plaintiff. If no reasonable reader could have understood the words as referring to the plaintiff, then there would be nothing to be left to the jury.’
Lord Reid said that ‘some people may think that the law has gone too far’ in holding a publisher liable for a reference innuendo, if the statement concerned ‘applies to someone the publisher has never heard of.’
References: [1971] 1 WLR 1239, [1971] 2 All ER 1156
Judges: Lord Reid, Lord Morris
Jurisdiction: England and Wales
This case cites:

  • Approved – Hough v London Express CA 1940
    The court looked at whether it was necessary to show actual damage to a reputation in a defamation case: ‘If words are used which impute discreditable conduct to my friend, he has been defamed to me, although I do not believe the imputation and may . .
    ([1940] 2 KB 507)
  • Cited – Knuppfer v London Express Newspaper Ltd HL 3-Apr-1944
    The plaintiff complained that the defendant’s article was defamatory in implying that he was an agent of Hitler. He was representative in Great Britain of a political party of Russian emigres known as Mlado Russ or Young Russia. The total membership . .
    (, [1944] UKHL 1, [1944] AC 196, [1944] AC 116)

This case is cited by:

  • Cited – Geenty v Channel Four Television Corporation and Jessel CA 13-Jan-1998
    The claimant police officer appealed against dismissal of his claim in defamation.
    Held: The words were capable of implicating the plaintiff in the neglect, they were also capable of implicating him in the accusation of maltreatment. The claim . .
    (Times 11-Feb-98, , [1998] EWCA Civ 10, [1998] EMLR 524)
  • Cited – Dow Jones and Co Inc v Jameel CA 3-Feb-2005
    Presumption of Damage in Defamation is rebuttable
    The defendant complained that the presumption in English law that the victim of a libel had suffered damage was incompatible with his right to a fair trial. They said the statements complained of were repetitions of statements made by US . .
    (, [2005] EWCA Civ 75, Times 14-Feb-05, [2005] EMLR 16, [2005] QB 946, [2005] 2 WLR 1614, [2005] EMLR 353)
  • Cited – Baturina v Times Newspapers Ltd CA 23-Mar-2011
    The claimant appealed against directions given in her defamation action against the defendant. It had been said that she owned a house, and the defendant said that this was not defamatory. The claimant said that as the wife of the Mayor of Moscow . .
    (, [2011] EWCA Civ 308, [2011] 1 WLR 1526, [2011] EMLR 19, [2011] HRLR 22)
  • Cited – Tilbrook v Parr QBD 13-Jul-2012
    The claimant, chair of a political party, the English Democrats, said that a blog written and published on the Internet by the defendant was defamatory and contained malicious falsehoods. The blog was said to associate the claimant’s party with . .
    (, [2012] EWHC 1946 (QB))
  • Cited – Elliott v Rufus CA 20-Feb-2015
    The parties were former footballers and business partners they fell out and the defendant was said to have sent and extremely offensive text message. After a copy was published, the defendant published a press release which the claimant now said was . .
    (, [2015] EWCA Civ 121)
  • Cited – Economou 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 . .
    (HQ15D01507, , [2016] EWHC 1853 (QB), , , [2017] EMLR 4)

These lists may be incomplete.
Last Update: 27 November 2020; Ref: scu.194331