Debate over meaning in footballer's People libel case

The People newspaper has failed in an attempt to persuade a judge that the words used in a football report were not capable of carrying any defamatory meaning.

Portsmouth and England player Glen Johnson is suing Mirror Group Newspapers over an article which appeared in The People on 28 December last year, on both the back page and page 50.

The story said the newspaper understood that Liverpool would sign Johnson for £9m, and had given the player, who had not played over Christmas because of a knee injury, a tour of its training ground.

Mr Justice Eady said in a decision handed down today that “there are really two distinct meanings alleged”.

The first was that the words, in their natural and ordinary meaning, conveyed the defamatory imputation that Johnson had lied, or at least perhaps was a knowing party to a false announcement, to the effect that he had been injured so as to prevent his playing in the Boxing Day match.

The second was the innuendo meaning which depended on the reader’s knowledge of extraneous facts – that he had been in breach of the rules when he made an approach to Liverpool, said the judge.

Eady added: “It is fair to say, however, that the article does not indicate on its face, one way or the other, whether it was Liverpool that was supposed to have made the approach or the claimant.”

Anthony Hudson, for MGN, had argued that both these claimed meanings were simply fanciful and that no reasonable reader giving the article a fair reading could come to either conclusion.

David Sherborne, for Johnson, had argued that loyalty was a valuable commodity in a football player, and that an allegation to the effect that he had been engaged in unauthorised talks or had feigned injury to conceal that such talks were taking place was very damaging.

It had emerged that at the time the story was published Johnson was involved in negotiations with Portsmouth chairman Peter Storrie.

Mr Justice Eady said he had concluded, “after some hesitation” that that it would be wrong to rule that the innuendo implication of disloyalty was one which the words are incapable of bearing, although the relevant class of readers was likely to be extremely small.

But the story was at least capable of bearing some defamatory meaning, the judge said.

He added that, given that one sentence referring to Johnson’s knee injury was ambiguously written, he did not feel justified in ruling that no reasonable reader could understand the meaning claimed by the player.

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