Election ‘Mock Newspapers’ Not Libellous

Posted: 28th February 2013

A former MP has suffered defeat in his libel case against the man who replaced him in the May 2010 general election after the Court of Appeal decided that statements published in two ‘mock newspapers’ during the campaign were not capable of bearing a defamatory meaning. The court ruled that the political context of the leaflets, ‘especially at election time’, was relevant when balancing freedom of expression against the right of individuals to protect their reputation.

Nigel Waterson, former MP for Eastbourne, argued that his good name was blackened by the leaflets circulated amidst the heat of the campaign by the eventual victor, Stephen Lloyd, and his campaign agent, Rebecca Carr. The leaflets, inter alia, questioned why he had been allowed to claim almost £70,000 in Parliamentary expenses to cover the mortgage on his family home which was more than 60 miles from Eastbourne.

Mr Waterson was granted summary judgment on his libel claim by the High Court in December 2011. However, by a majority of two judges to one, the court allowed the defendants’ appeal, ruling that, although the leaflets commented that Mr Waterson's conduct was ‘a scandal’, they contained no implication that he had broken the law of the land or Parliamentary expenses rules.

Mr Waterson had argued that the leaflets implied without justification that he had improperly claimed expenses when, in fact, his claims were found to raise ‘no issues’ in a review carried out by Sir Thomas Legg. However, the majority of the court ruled that a defamatory meaning could not be ‘teased out’ of the words actually written.

In a dissenting ruling, Lord Justice Richards said that the leaflets had ‘presented Mr Waterson as the Eastbourne exemplar of the national scandal of MPs' abuse of the expenses system’ and were capable of being defamatory. However, he was out-voted by the other two judges.