A judge has backed the Telegraph after its chief city commentator wrote a “good-humoured mocking” of Easyjet’s founder and his “strawman” conspiracy claims.
Ben Marlow wrote in May that Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou (pictured) had “decamped to the Caribbean paradise [St Barts] to concentrate on an entire series of increasingly wild conspiracy theories” and that the “only thing that is made out of straw is his bizarre vendetta”.
Sir Stelios had claimed three Easyjet shareholders were “strawmen” for Airbus hoping to thwart his campaign for the carrier to terminate its £4.5bn order for new aircraft, which he believed would lead to the airline’s bankruptcy because of falling demand caused by the Covid-19 crisis.
Sir Stelios told the court the column’s portrayal of him was “clearly defamatory” as he is a “major and well-known businessman” and that “if people thought he was deliberately making completely false allegations of serious wrongdoing as part of a baseless campaign against established investment companies, they would consider that outrageous and think much the worse of him for it”.
But Mrs Justice Collins Rice agreed with the Telegraph that the column amounted to non-defamatory statements of opinion that he “has advanced a new conspiracy theory about why large shareholders in Easyjet intend to support the company against him in his ongoing battle with the company and which is of very doubtful validity”.
The newspaper added that the column was clearly a comment piece because it is “evaluative in language, tone and context” and fell far short of a statement or insinuation that Sir Stelios had deliberately made a false or malicious allegation.
“It amounts to the expression of a personal view, a good-humoured mocking of a specific incident – the claimant’s public comments and his decision to make them – not his standing or personal attributes more generally,” the newspaper argued.
In her judgment, the judge said the reader would have been expecting “informed and entertaining comment” from Marlow, who wrote the section in question in a diary-style postscript at the end of his column.
The hyperbolic choice of language and scene-setting around the Caribbean, including the headline asking if the sun had gone to his head, would lead the reader to believe that what Sir Stelios had said was “similarly over the top and impossible to take seriously”.
Ruling that the article did not have a defamatory meaning, the judge said it would be read that Sir Stelios “felt so strongly that cancellation of the Airbus contract was the right thing for Easyjet that on one occasion he caricatured his opponents with rhetoric that does not stand up to sober scrutiny and cannot be taken seriously”.
The judge concluded that the piece was merely an expression of Marlow’s opinion and that the ordinary reader would not think less of Sir Stelios on the strength of this column alone.
Picture: PA Wire/Chris Radburn