NI: Former hotelier awarded £50,000 in damages for defamatory comments published by the Sunday World
The High Court in Belfast has awarded compensation of £50,000 to a former hotelier after defamatory comments were published in the Sunday World newspaper.
Justice Stephens held that the newspaper did not meet the standards of responsible journalism in failing to verify sources, and had erroneously represented the owner as a “Scrooge” when on the facts it was clear that he “had no other option” than to put the hotel into administration.
Robert Coulter, a former owner of Kilmorey Arms Hotel in Kilkeel, was awarded compensation of £50,000 for the defamatory comments published by Sunday Newspapers Ltd T/A Sunday World and Roisin Gorman.
On Sunday 21 December 2014, the Sunday World newspaper published an article by journalist Roisin Gorman, entitled “Wage-ing War: Sacked staff left with no pay just before Christmas” stating “Kilkeel Hotel owner Gordon Coulter has been branded a Scrooge for putting his staff on the street a week before Christmas”.
It claimed that former workers at the hotel were “called by a receptionist to say the hotel had gone into administration” but “no one could tell whether they would get wages for the previous four weeks” which should have been paid, and customers who paid in advance for Christmas meals had been “left high and dry”.
Mr Coulter brought an action against the newspaper claiming that the article was defamatory in that in their natural and ordinary meaning the words used meant that:
Sunday Newspapers denied that the words were defamatory and alleged that the words bore a lesser meaning that “there were grounds to investigate or reason to believe that Mr Coulter lacked ‘Christmas spirit’ or displayed a certain meanness of spirit, having regard to the time of year and inability to properly communicate with staff about their loss of wages and the closure of the hotel”.
Justice Stephens said that Court was required “to determine the single meaning of the article and the impression it would have had on the hypothetical ordinary reasonable reader but not to subject it to over-elaborate analysis”.
Accordingly, “a reader would have understood the article to mean that Mr Coulter was a mean Scrooge like figure and that he acted callously towards his staff without regard to their interests” – rejecting the contention that the meaning of the article was not defamatory as it substantially affected in an adverse manner the attitude of other people towards Mr Coulter, and fell within all the other definitions of the word defamatory.
The Reynolds Defence
Sunday Newspapers relied on the “Reynolds defence”: (1) the subject matter of the publication was of sufficient public interest; (2) it was reasonable to include the particular material complained of; and (3) the publisher had met the standards of responsible journalism (Reynolds v Times Newspapers Limited 2 AC 127)
Justice Stephens focused on whether the publisher had met the standards of responsible journalism – stating that a responsible journalist should have anticipated that the allegation would cause a considerable degree of distress and harm to Mr Coulter, damaging a reputation that had been built up over many years, and that there was the potential for the public in his community to be substantially misinformed.
Justice Stephens did not accept that the sources were reliable or that a responsible journalist would have considered them to be reliable.
The steps to verify the information provided by the sources did not amount to responsible journalism given the seriousness of the allegations made – if such steps had been taken it would have been apparent that there were serious credibility issues about the account given; if the hotel manager had been contacted, the fact that there was no other option but administration would have been confirmed; and it would have been clear that the staff were aware of serious financial difficulties in the months running up to the hotel’s closure.
Furthermore, the article did not include Mr Coulter’s “side of the story that the business had struggled to remain profitable, that there had been an economic downturn and that there had been significant personal investment by the shareholders”.
Justice Stephens concluded that Sunday Newspapers had not established that it met the standard of responsible journalism – it would have been reasonable to write the article taking one of many other approaches, and therefore rejected the Reynolds defence.
Justice Stephens stated that the role of the court in the assessment of damages in defamation proceedings is to arrive at a figure “necessary to compensate the plaintiff and re-establish his reputation”. The essential functions were (1) to act as a consolation to the plaintiff for the distress he suffers from the publication of the statement; (2) to repair loss to his reputation; (3) as a vindication for his reputation.
Justice Stephens considered that this was a serious libel in the context of Mr Coulter’s community, having a serious impact on his feelings not only due to the publication but also due to Sunday Newspapers’ conduct pleading justification and the journalist not accepting, despite all the evidence, that Mr Coulter had no other option but to put the company into administration.
Justice Stephens said there was no recognition by Sunday Newspapers during the trial that, in actual fact, information had been provided to all the employees; there was no acceptance that the two sources were incorrect in that Mr Coulter was not a Scrooge but rather had made a substantial financial commitment losing money and not receiving any financial reward over a 14 year period; and there had been no apology.
Consequently, Mr Coulter was awarded £50,000 in compensation.