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Newspapers secure summary judgment over libel claims brought by social worker

Two national newspaper groups have obtained summary judgment over libel claims brought by a former senior social worker.

However, Associated Newspapers, publisher of the MailOnline website, and News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, did not attack Carol Carruthers’ claims for misuse of private information and/or data protection and so these will continue.

When the articles were published in March 2017, the claimant was employed by Haringey Council. She held the posts of Deputy Assistant Director of Children's Safeguarding and Head of Services for Children In Need of Support and Protection.

The newspapers claimed Carruthers had sent, whilst at work, sexual images and sexual texts to an unknown man she met on an online dating website. They also mentioned that she had been “boss in charge of child welfare at Haringey Council at the time of the Baby P case, and at the Victoria Climbie case”.

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Carruthers contended that, as a result of the publication of the articles, she was suspended and she later resigned.

In Carruthers v Associated Newspapers Ltd [2019] EWHC 33 (QB) Mr Justice Nicklin said: “I understand why the Claimant believes that the juxtaposition of the allegations made against her about the sending of messages and photographs with reports of the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases might lead some readers to make a connection between these two matters.

“However, for the purposes of defamation, the Court must fix the meaning that the hypothetical reasonable reader would understand the relevant article to bear. As I have noted, there is necessarily some artificiality in this process. Some people do not read much of an article beyond the headline and the first few paragraphs before moving on to the next article. But the law has established, clearly, in Charleston, that such readers are not reasonable readers. The notional ordinary reasonable reader is taken to have read all of the article.

Mr Justice Nicklin added: “In my judgment, in relation to the articles published by both Defendants, the hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader, having read the whole of the relevant article, could not conclude that the Claimant was in any way connected with the Baby P and Victoria Climbie cases, other than the fact that she worked for the Council.

“Although there is undoubted juxtaposition of the two strands in the articles, neither of them could be read as suggesting a connection between these strands. The historic failures in relation to Baby P and Victoria Climbie happened over between 11 and 18 years ago whereas the events concerning the Claimant are recent events and are the basis of (and reason for) publication of the articles (as is clear, for example, from the headlines). The ordinary reasonable reader could not understand the First NGN print and online Articles to allege that the Claimant posed a 'serious danger and risk to vulnerable children in her charge'. That is a forced and unreasonable meaning.

The judge said that the fact that the claimant worked for the council that was responsible for the historic failures in the two notorious cases did not contribute any element of the defamatory sting to the meaning the articles bore about her. “It is that meaning upon which the Court must focus and ascertain.”

The judge said that the meaning of the articles was:

i) the claimant, who held a senior post in Haringey Council, whilst at work, had sent several sexual messages and images she had taken of herself to a man she met on a dating website; and

ii) the sending of these messages and images, whilst she was at work, was inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour for someone in the claimant's position.

“Applying the principles regarding the proper determination of allegations of fact and expressions of opinion, my conclusion is that, in each case, meaning (i) is factual and not defamatory and meaning (ii) is an expression of opinion,” the judge said.

“In each article, the fact that the Claimant had sent the messages/pictures whilst she was at work is not something that is stated to be a breach of the Council's rules. Therefore, the expression of condemnation is a value judgment on that conduct and would readily have been recognised as such. It is not a requirement for any potential honest opinion defence, but, in this instance, readers of each article could make up their own minds about whether they thought the conduct of the Claimant was worthy of the expressed criticism.

Both defendants contended that they should be granted summary judgment on the basis that there was no real prospect that a defence of honest opinion would fail.

Mr Justice Nicklin said an honest person plainly could express the opinions, in paragraph (ii) of each of the meanings he had found, based on the facts admitted in the claimant's evidence. The claimant had no real prospect of succeeding on this issue.

The judge concluded that the newspapers were entitled to summary judgment on the claimant's defamation claims against them.

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